MONTPELIER — The healing powers of hydrotherapy are part of a proposal to build a public bathhouse in the Capital City.
Dr. Casey Ellison, a naturopath in Montpelier, is hoping to build a community hydrotherapy center on part of 18-acres of land off Barre Street next to Sabin’s Pasture, owned by Vermont College of Arts and on the market for $600,000.
News of the project came at a meeting of City Council last week, when Ellison requested a variance on zoning on about one acre, from Residential 24000 to Riverfront zoning, which allows for commercial development, to avoid a conflict with nearby neighbors. The council will consider the request at zoning ordinance reviews next month.
Ellison said it is hoped to start work on the bathhouse project in the fall of 2020 or spring of 2021. She said she hoped a second phase of the project would involve building about 40 units of affordable housing in the Riverfront zone of the parcel three to five years after the bathhouse.
Unlike the traditional spa experience of “pampering oneself,” Ellison said the bathhouse project would be based on a centuries-old medical model of recuperative contrast hydrotherapy that uses a steady rise in body temperature, followed by immersion in cold water, that stimulates circulation and improves immune-system functions.
The 7,500-square-foot facility would offer steam rooms, saunas, a therapy pool, a cold plunge pool and a darkened communal salt pool that creates “womb-like” sensory deprivation for relaxation and rejuvenation. There would also be community gathering space to promote a shared experience of communal wellness, she said.
From an early age, Ellison said she became interested in naturopathic medicine which also focuses on a variety of remedies using dietary, herbal and nutritional counseling and energetic therapies. She studied fine arts and pre-med at the University of Colorado, and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University in California.
“One of the facets of our education includes hydrotherapy, an older school of medicine that comes mostly from western Europe,” Ellison said. “A lot of other places around the globe use hydrotherapy.
“Basically, it’s the concept of using hot and cold water to move toxins through the body with a sort of pump action — a mechanism that stimulates bloodflow — it stimulates immunity and just general wellbeing. It increases certain neurotransmitter production for feelings of well-being and helps with depression. Basically, it just makes people feel much better,” she added.
Ellison said the practice of hydrotherapy is an ancient art in medicine, which dates back hundreds of years.
“I take a lot of inspiration from different cultures that use hydrotherapy on a daily basis — Turkish culture, Russian culture, Finnish and other Scandanavian cultures, Korean and Japanese cultures — these are some examples of where hydrotherapy is used daily.
“In its purest sense, it’s available to everyone. The spa culture in the U. S. is different because it’s a sort of elite way of approaching using these different therapies. Also, in spas it’s not as health-focused because the water is chlorinated, so it’s not as much about health,” she added.
Ellison said that the example of Japanese bathhouse culture was about “purification, ritual, washing and gathering and community.”
Ellison said she had studied bathhouses for many years in the hope of bringing the model to Montpelier.
“I would like to create a place where people can gather to take care of their health and in a simple way, and it feels like a luxury but it’s not,” Ellison said. “I also wanted to create a place where people can feel togetherness, especially in the winter months when people feel isolated.”
Ellison stressed that bathhouse should not be confused with other hydrotherapy programs such as exercise or lap pools, which would be an expensive alternative and not suited to the topography of the proposed bathhouse site.
The building would also be constructed of materials that did not pose any toxic health risks to bathhouse users and would also be designed to be aesthetically pleasing, she said.
Ellison said the housing project would similarly be tailored to the needs of residents.
“We want to think about housing from the perspective of the person,” Ellison said. “There are people that would prefer to have communal living space, so they might have a smaller space themselves, a bit like a co-housing model.
“The units themselves would be smaller but very well designed, beautiful, with the right orientation to the sun and the light, with attention, again, to no toxic materials, no formaldehyde that makes people sick. We really want people to feel healthy, so of course we have to practice what we preach,” she added.
Ellison said it is hoped to provide a range of other facilities for both business and communal services on the site.
Partners in the project include Ellison’s wife, Twylla Lannes, collaborators Petra Rowan Rhines and Claire Wheeler, Helm Construction Solutions in Montpelier and Engineering Ventures in Burlington.