The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Friday, November 12, 2010

As most faithful (?) readers know, I loathe the sort of people who say that they've "discovered" something. Who the hell are you, anyway, Vasco da Gama? Chances are much higher that you're just another dumbass from West Asslick, Indiana who now lives in Washington DC and pretends to have never heard of West Asslick, Indiana. Until, that is, West Asslick reopens its old movie house as a Repertory Cinema and develops a scourge of coffee bars, in which case you'll have Discovered it without ever admitting that it's your hometown.

Thus, I never claim to have discovered anything, other than the rather unfortunate occasional discovery that I am out of bourbon or cigarettes. Also, since I almost never leave Maryland and Virginia, it's awfully hard for me to discover anything new anyway. Mostly, I just notice things that I hadn't previously noticed because I was drunk at the time, or that I'd forgotten because I hadn't seen them since I was six years old. In either case, these can't really count as discoveries.

One of my favorite re-noticings (remember, I reserve the right as an English teacher to invent words as I go, which also helps me to avoid saying "discoveries") is the lovely little town of Bath, West Virginia. Regarding the aforementioned rarity of my leaving Maryland and Virginia, it barely counts--the place is five miles from the Maryland border and predates the defection of West Virginia from the mother state.

Bath is known to much of the world as Berkeley Springs. In reality, it is only the waters themselves that are Berkeley Springs. The town is still Bath. However, since the Post Office was all powerful once upon a time, it decreed that since there was already a Bath County in Virginia, having a town of Bath that wasn't in Bath County would be confusing, and so mail must go to Berkeley Springs, which is now in West Virginia anyway, but...oh, bother.

Foremost, I love old spa resorts. I always did like that idea of "taking the waters." There's just something awfully...oh, I don't know, Dickensian, or 1880 Richmond, or Habsburgian about it. Besides, there's something wickedly magical about the old spas. In their day, they were wicked places with hotels and dancing and all sorts of other naughty things, but it was all predicated on the idea of taking the waters for your health. Never mind that everyone promptly destroyed the health benefits by drinking, smoking and dancing themselves silly while there; it's all part of the process of Taking the Waters.

While I've had the chance to visit a few of these old places now, Bath/Berkeley Springs is far and away my favorite. Here, in one odd little town a few miles from the Potomac, the worlds of ancient spa-goers, hippies, and rednecks collide rather peacefully and pleasantly.

There's a little movie house called the Star, which I expect is so named because the marquee is too small for a longer name. It started its life as a garage, but in the '20s became a movie house. Not only does it still have first-run pictures, it has sofas in the first few rows. There are used book shops, and places that sell homemade soap, and there are lots of friendly cats wandering the streets. Best of all, the '30s hotel is still operational and doesn't appear to have changed significantly since opening day.

And just think--you can really still Take the Waters, there, too. Although the hotel has its own spa, and there are several small day-spa operations, the best for your dollar is the Park itself in the center of town. It offers the ancient 1815 Roman Bath House and the New Main Bath House (1929). Remember those old movies where people got closed into steam boxes? You can really do that here. There are big seven foot long Victorian tubs, or the Roman style baths--750 gallons of hot mineral water--to soak in. I never really thought that I'd like a massage until I threw caution to the winds and had one. DAMN. I've never been so chilled out in my life. At Bath, the masseurs/masseuses are still uniformed in white; there are male masseurs on the men's side and lady masseuses on the ladies' side. This IS still West Virginia, after all--all VERY proper and no hint of the "happy ending" offered by city places. And all of this for forty dollars! (Similar treatments at the beautiful, and newly-restored, Bedford Springs run upwards of $120.00.)

Should you wish to visit, the nicest way from Baltimore and Washington is via I-70; even that interstate has some lovely scenery of Western Maryland. It's a bit more arduous from Richmond; one must first get to Winchester and then north. Though it's possible as a day trip, I'd certainly recommend a night at the old hotel--the Country Inn, originally the Park View Hotel. Do eat at the hotel, too--the food is nothing adventurous but very tasty, and they tend to have good soups.

Watch this space for things that if I were from West Asslick, I would have just Discovered.