A fountain of youth conjures images of a tranquil pool full of bathing beauties in a tropical setting. There’s a place in North Port, Florida, just like that. Except swap out the bathing beauties for plump, septuagenarian Eastern Europeans wearing hats the size of garbage can lids. Also, add the smell of rotten eggs and a bunch of ancient American Indian bones at the bottom of the pool, and that’s it: Warm Mineral Springs.
I was shocked when my Dear Fiancee agreed to visit the springs last month. Besides the beach, Dear Fiancee and nature don’t exactly get along. Nonetheless, she knew what she was getting in to; we had attended Jifat Windmiller’s presentation on the springs at the DOCOMOMO U.S. conference in April. Luckily for me, two things stuck with her from Windmiller’s talk: “mineral bath” and “sunbathing.”
The Warm Mineral Springs Motel stands along the Tamiami Trail and acts as the unofficial gateway to the springs. The buildings, designed by Sarasota modern architect Victor Lundy and built in 1958, are laid out like a typical postwar motel complex with the one-story buildings forming a U-shaped courtyard. But Lundy, the most artistic of the Sarasota School architects, brought some flourish to the arrangement with his dual-level concrete roofs that resemble giant square golf tees. The expansive sliding glass doors encourage guests to hang out in the courtyard, and that’s what the few there were doing when I visited. Unlike those in most postwar motels, the patrons appeared to be neither drug addicts nor the recently paroled.
Click here for historic images of the motel.
The springs are about a mile north of the motel. The route passed through a half-developed subdivision that showcased the evils of sprawl. Lots first put on the market 50 years ago still sat empty. Those that have been improved featured the state’s finest uninspired residential designs from the 1960s through the present. Trees were height challenged, and the grass was about as thick as Matt Lauer’s hair.
A tile slab outside the springs complex commemorated the 400th anniversary of Tristan de Luna’s settlement of Pensacola , the first in La Florida. De Luna actually landed in 1559, so apparently they thought the event worthy of a two-year celebration. Warm Mineral Springs is a strange place to celebrate de Luna’s landing considering Pensacola is about 300 miles away. This year, Florida is all about the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s voyage to the state’s east coast, so de Luna’s later date has lost its luster.
Jack West, another architect who was part of the Sarasota School of Architecture, designed the facilities at the springs, which include a gift shop, bathing house, restaurant, and cyclorama depicting Ponce’s “discovery” of the fountain of youth, rumored to be Warm Mineral Springs. Unfortunately, the cyclorama was closed, and the cold-hearted employees wouldn’t let me in despite my pleas. West’s buildings are utilitarian, but he wisely utilized long, narrow corridors to build anticipation before visitors reach the springs pool.
The tunnel opened to a lush setting, a contrast to the neighborhood just across the fence. Colorful plants and a small fountain with a plaque greeted us. The circular pool is about 240-feet wide and is drained via a creek in the southwest corner. Waders walked in a clockwise motion along the perimeter as if they were performing a ritual. Soothing instrumental music played over the sound system. A few people swam leisurely across the middle. Random groups of plastic lounge chairs rung the perimeter of the swimming hole. Shade was offered by a tent to the west and the stands of palm and oak trees to the east and south.
Voices speaking unfamiliar dialects were common. It’s surprising that the springs attract patrons from so far away considering North Port is about as cosmopolitan as an Olive Garden. Nonetheless, many have relocated to the area from the Baltic Sea region so they can swim daily in hopes of curing their ailments. The 86-degree water is supposedly packed with dozens of minerals, including hydrogen sulfide (thus the bad smell). Eight million gallons of the water–estimated to be 30,000 years old–shoots up from the Earth’s crust every day.
Surprisingly, Dear Fiancee wanted to go in the water with me. Here it comes, I thought, one step into the muck and she’s done. But there would be no muck, because sand had been dumped on the bottom, and the slime was limited to the tops of the toe-stubbing limestone outcroppings.
The water is only a few feet deep along the perimeter of the pool. But past the ropes it drops to a depth of about 210 feet. Shaped like an hourglass, the basin was a partially submerged sinkhole thousands of years ago. Prehistoric American Indians buried their dead along the sides in small caves before it filled to the brim, and the National Register of Historic Places-listed WMS is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the United States.
In 1976, divers found a mandible that was carbon dated to about 10,000 years ago–among the oldest human remains found in North America. The sinkhole also may have been an inescapable pit, and bones from humans–as well as extinct animals such as giant ground sloths, sabertooth cats, and wooly mammoths–have been found at the debris cone at the bottom. The mineral water acts as a preservative for the bones.
As we swam to the middle, Dear Fiancee asked about the possibility of alligators. I halfheartedly assured her that alligators don’t like mineral baths. I was more worried about an attack from the ghost of a dead American Indian, angered that his sacred burial place had been infiltrated by Nikita Khrushchev lookalikes floating on foam noodles.
Sarasota County and the city of North Point are playing tug of war over the springs’ future. The two municipalities jointly purchased the property in 2010 for $5.5 million. They hired the former owner to manage it as a health spa, which includes yoga, massage therapy, and acupuncture. Going forward, the county wants a developer to build a health resort with shops and condos and a medical plaza, assisted-living facility, and hotel on the empty land near the springs. North Port doesn’t want any of that; they just want to focus on the springs and the park that exists there now. Each side has offered to buy the other out. Neither will sell. The lease with the current operator is scheduled to end this month. If it isn’t extended, the springs will close until the government agencies come to terms over its operation.
Alas, Dear Fiancee didn’t enjoy the gobs of vegetation that floated on the surface and retreated to her seat in the sun. But, overall, she enjoyed the peaceful setting and even alluded to a return trip.
Later that night, I read about William Royal, an amateur archaeologist responsible for bringing attention to the springs’ archaeological wonders in the 1950s and 1960s, and an encounter he had with an alligator during one of his dives.
“Oh, there have been alligators in Warm Mineral Springs,” I said to Dear Financee.
“I’m never going back,” she said.