Eureka’s latest incarnation
I’ve enjoyed visits to Eureka Springs for decades. I had little choice as a boy. My mother loved this town in the Arkansas Ozarks and would insist that my father take us there on a regular basis.
Marty and Elise Roenigk came to appreciate its charms later in life. The couple from East Hampton, Conn., was visiting Fayetteville when someone suggested a day trip to Eureka Springs. It didn’t take them long to decide it would be the place they would retire.
“We loved the history, architecture, galleries, shopping, people and the area,” Marty Roenigk told an interviewer in 2008. “There are interesting people in the community, great eclectic shops and restaurants. You’re in the middle of the Ozarks with lots of recreational opportunities but close enough to the growth, arts and cultural attractions of Northwest Arkansas.”
Marty Roenigk was the former chairman and chief executive officer of CompuDyne, a company that designs and installs electronic security systems. He purchased the historic Basin Park Hotel in downtown Eureka Springs in February 1997 so he and his wife could live in an upper-floor apartment. When the 1886 Crescent Hotel came on the market three months later, the couple purchased it and moved instead to its top floor.
“We wanted to save it from the path to ruin that it was on, having deteriorated from years with very little investment,” Marty Roenigk said of the Crescent in that 2008 interview. “We wanted to see it become the focal point of the community again.”
In June 2009, Marty Roenigk died at age 68 in a two-vehicle accident in southeast Iowa. His wife, who was driving at the time, was injured. After her recovery, she returned to Eureka Springs. In May, I was one of the authors invited to the annual Books In Bloom literary festival on the Crescent grounds. Elise Roenigk came to the tent where I was signing books. Without paying attention to whom I was talking, I asked, “Where are you from?” She answered, “I live in this hotel.” I immediately realized who she was and thanked her for keeping two Arkansas classics—the Basin Park and the Crescent—alive.
Last month, I was back in Eureka Springs with my wife and two sons. We chose to stay in one of the Crescent Cottages, a Marty Roenigk project. He hired noted architect David McKee, who once worked for Fay Jones, to design cottages with large decks that would blend into the surrounding woods near the hotel. I walked to the hotel’s Crystal Dining Room one morning to have coffee with Jack Moyer, who manages the Crescent for Elise Roenigk. There had been two weddings taking place when we arrived at the Crescent on a Saturday. Moyer said the wedding market is a key revenue source for Eureka Springs.
“We’ve had as many as seven in a day at this hotel,” he said. “You can’t let yourself get stale. We’re always trying something new. For instance, we’re hoping to add a wedding venue in the woods because a lot of couples like to get married in that type of setting.”
Moyer said he enjoys visiting with his summer interns because they give him a sense of what young people want in a vacation.
“The way I look at it, people like them will be our customers in five years,” he said. “We have to be prepared to give them what they want.”
One example is the hiking trails that have been added at the Crescent for those who desire more outdoor activities. Moyer said the tourism business in Eureka Spring has been relatively flat for years, but he does see several emerging trends. He thinks fewer of the Victorian homes that dot the city will be used for bed-and-breakfast inns in the future, with more of them serving as weekend getaways for those getting wealthy in the latest Northwest Arkansas economic boom.
“Our biggest market is now people making the short drive from Benton and Washington counties,” Moyer said. “Wichita, Kan., is also a key market, especially for people purchasing homes out toward Beaver Lake. The businesses east of town have struggled in recent years as the Great Passion Play audiences have fallen off. We’re seeing more action west of town toward the lake. Downtown continues to do well with most of the storefronts filled.”
Eureka Springs has experienced numerous ups and downs through the decades. In June 1879, a judge named Levi Best Saunders built a house to take advantage of the spring water that he credited with curing his skin problems. Within months, a general store had been built. Joseph Perry, who owned hotels across the country, constructed his four-story Perry House Hotel in 1881. Soon the word was out.
It was an era when baths in mineral waters were all the rage, and hundreds of wooden houses and businesses were built on the surrounding hills. Major fires struck the city in 1883, 1888, 1890 and 1893, but Eureka Springs bounced back each time. Reconstruction-era Gov. Powell Clayton formed the Eureka Improvement Co. and opened the Crescent in 1886. The Basin Park opened in 1905 where the Perry House had once stood.
Eureka Springs had been in a long decline when the controversial Gerald L.K. Smith moved there in 1964, unveiled the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks statue in 1966 and began the Great Passion Play in 1968. Those projects brought thousands of new visitors. As interest in Smith’s creation falls off, it appears the economic ascendancy of the Fayetteville-to-Bentonville corridor will be the latest economic savior for Eureka Springs. After all, those newly minted millionaires need a nearby place to play.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.