Mesa’s historic Buckhorn Baths may soon get a new life by dusting off its original purpose and adding some trendy new ones.
Decades of decay would be erased through renovations that restore the steaming hot mineral baths and the quirky “Wildlife Museum’’ at Main Street and Recker Road. A boutique hotel would open, restoring Buckhorn’s original mission of soothing the sore muscles of achy guests.
A collapsed wall inside a well would be repaired, untapping the 112-degree mineral water that Ted Sliger accidentally found on his then remote property in 1939 –when he and his wife Alice were operating a desert trading post and tired of trucking in water.
But profits are needed to make this retro-dream a reality – the kind that can be garnered by building at least 200 luxury townhouses, with three bedrooms, 1,300 square feet and two car garages.
“I think it’s an incredible idea. It would serve so many purposes,’’ said Councilwoman Julie Spilsbury, who represents the central-east Mesa district.
She said she likes the concept of not only preserving history, but addressing a longtime eyesore that some of her constituents have complained about.
“It would be amazing. That would bring up the value of everything around it,’’ Spilsbury said.
Spilsbury toured the property and said she understands its historic value.
“It’s an eyesore, but there is another story,’’ Spilsbury said. “I can’t wait to see what happens.’’
The other story is an important part of Mesa’s history, so important that Mesa voters authorized buying the property through a bond issue.
But the sale never was completed.
Buckhorn was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. It harkens back not only to Mesa’s Wild West past, but also touches on its history of hospitality.
It played a critical role in the formation of the Cactus League, with New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham sending his veteran players out to baths before spring training began, starting in 1947, in hopes of avoiding injuries.
No formal plans have been filed with the city but the new owner, Ajay Verma, who formerly lived in Mesa, has taken control of the property, purchasing it for about $3.8 million after it fell into receivership.
Tim Boyle, a Mesa architect and Planning and Zoning Board member, said Verma understands the unique history of Buckhorn but also thinks it has great potential as a high-end development.
“They are excited about bringing the museum back and the potential for the spa,’’ Boyle said. “They have a commitment to Mesa and they have a commitment to quality.’’
Boyle, who is acting as Verma’s point man, said the 3 ½ to 4-acre museum and baths would be preserved and that the building is in surprisingly good shape.
“It has good bones,’’ he said, even if it looks a bit grungy behind a chain-link fence. “The water gives us a really unique element.’’
He said the museum would include not only the taxidermy, but a display on the Cactus League connection, making it a natural stop for fans in town for ballgames.
But he said other small buildings built to the west are too decayed for repair and will get bulldozed to create room for the townhouses on the remaining 11-12 acres.
While most of the site is zoned for multi-family housing, some minor rezoning may be necessary along Main Street to accommodate the most units possible, Boyle said.
He hopes to have a “pre-submittal’’ proposal available for the Planning and Zoning Department’s review soon. Boyle, a frequent critic of unimaginative architecture, acknowledges his challenging mission with the unique Buckhorn property.
“When it’s all done, we hope it all blends together,’ Boyle said.
He envisions a focus around a historic theme that may include rooms named after the famous players who stayed there or internal roads named after Giants legends Willie Mays and Gaylord Perry.
After becoming involved in the project, Boyle immediately brought in an expert to help him, Ron Peters, a Mesa architect who specializes in historic preservation.
Peters prepared Buckhorn’s application for the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and also authored a book about Buckhorn with Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation.
Linoff said the baths closed in 1999, while the motel closed in 2007.
Mesa residents demonstrated their commitment for historic preservation by passing a $70 million parks bond issue in 2012, which included at least $5 million to purchase and renovate Buckhorn Baths.
Internal disagreements among the Sligers sidetracked the sale.
“The Buckhorn has been through so much in the last 11 years. There’s been several false starts,’’ Linoff said, placing the historical aspects in jeopardy. “We’re really hoping that this purchaser will be the savior of Buckhorn.’’
He said there would be a line to use the baths if the Buckhorn were to re-open, and when the sign was turned on for an event about Mesa’s history of neon, it got a lot of attention. “In reality, the Buckhorn can’t take much more neglect. It needs to be acted on quickly,’’ Linoff said.
Peters and Boyle have already met with Arianna Urban, the city’s historic preservation coordinator, to discuss what needs to be preserved to keep the baths' special historic designation.
Peters’ highly detailed application includes a complete history of Buckhorn, including the name. Ted Sliger was a prolific taxidermist.
He had loaned out a buck to a Mesa business. The buck was the only piece to be saved when Sligers’ original Desert Wells trading post near Power and Main Street, burned to the ground on Christmas Eve 1935.
The Sligers bought the land for Buckhorn in 1936 and built the one- of- a- kind resort as a lifetime labor of love, using a Pueblo Revival style of architecture during an 11-year period, finishing in about 1947, according to Peters’ application.
The Wildlife Museum once featured more than 400 pieces of taxidermy, much of which was donated by the previous owner to Arizona State University, but some remains behind.
“Although the buildings are in need of minor repairs, their historic integrity is excellent and Buckhorn Baths stands as an excellent example of a regionally-themed tourist facility for the 1930s and 1940s,’’ Peters wrote.
He said four additional wells were dug, giving the bathhouse the capability of serving 75 people a day as the resort expanded during the 1940s, when it was trendy for wealthy people to seek treatment at hot springs.
“By building a spa and a motel in a native style and with materials indigenous to the region, the Sligers constructed a tourism environment with the romantic qualities and regional character necessary to attract patrons across the country,’’ according to the application.