long live the buckhorn baths.
Standing alongside Main Street in Mesa, Arizona, the Buckhorn Baths Motel emerges from the suburban desert like a midcentury mirage, its enormous neon sign battered but still beaming with the stories of a more prosperous time. A legendary landmark with a history that dates back to the 1930s, the Buckhorn Baths has all of the hallmarks of a retro roadside retreat- the romanticized Pueblo Revival shell still embodying an age when the automobile vacation was an American institution.
In 1936, Alice and Theodore "Ted" Sliger purchased a large plot of land just outside of Mesa- at the time, an empty patch of desert with convenient access to U.S. Highways 60, 80, and 89. After moving a house onto the property, the Sligers opened a gas station and a small store to cater to tourists traveling to and from the central Arizona mountains. Business was good, and soon the couple expanded, building an addition to display Ted's own taxidermy collection (what would become a "wildlife museum"). By 1938, travelers could stop at the quirky roadside attraction to buy a few souvenirs, fill up on gas, and see the local wildlife- all in one place. But with more people came a need for more water (Ted had been hauling all of the drinking water to the site himself), so the Sligers went looking for a new source. In 1939, they sunk a well, but what they found wasn't the kind of water you would want to drink.
Instead of drinking water, the Sligers had uncovered a mineral-laden hot spring, and the Buckhorn Baths were born. Capitalizing on their chance discovery, the couple constructed a bathhouse that could serve nearly 75 visitors a day and a new row of cottages for overnight guests. Before long, the therapeutic spa began to eclipse the gas station business, and between 1940 and 1947, the Sligers continued to expand their desert resort, creating a full-service retreat renowned for its healing waters, eclectic architecture, and celebrity guests (not to mention Ted's stuffed animals). In 1947, the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants, which just so happen to be my favorite baseball team) visited the area for spring training, and for the next 25 years, the Buckhorn Baths would be the team's home away from home (paving the way for the establishment of the Cactus League). Baseball players like Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Ty Cobb all visited the hot, healing waters. At its peak, the Buckhorn Baths Motel could accommodate more than 100 guests and offered a cafe, dining room, hair salon, gift shop, post office, museum, cactus garden- even a golf course- to those looking for a little R&R in the desert.
But like most roadside motels, the end of an era came sooner than later, and by the closing decades of the twentieth century, as less people traveled the old highways and major hotel chains left many small motels struggling, the Buckhorn Baths began to decline. After Ted passed away in 1984, the baths remained open for another decade, finally closing in 1999. Five years later, the motel and the museum followed suit. When Alice Sliger died in 2010, the City of Mesa attempted to purchase the deteriorating property (listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005) in hopes of preserving the beloved landmark. Negotiations eventually failed, but a developer interested in reviving the property's retro glory stepped in to buy the historic motel in 2017, and plans to rehabilitate the site are currently in development (rumors of restaurants or a microbrewery have been floated).
Fortunately, Ted and Alice Sliger's storied roadside oasis survives- its rambling configuration of decaying Pueblo Revival-style buildings still capturing the imagination of those with an interest in a bygone era (and baseball). Though Ted's taxidermy collection is gone (donated to Arizona State University), this dusty time-capsule endures as a token of a time when automobile-friendly motels helped define American recreation. For seven decades, that iconic sign lit up the desert. Here's hoping those neon lights can shine bright again.
Photograph at top:
Buckhorn Baths Motel (2018) by Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2018663506.
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