West Baden Springs Hotel

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West Baden Springs Hotel
West Baden Springs Hotel dome at dawn.jpg
Dome of the hotel
West Baden Springs Hotel is located in Indiana
West Baden Springs Hotel
Location West of State Road 56, West Baden Springs, Indiana
Coordinates 38°34′2″N 86°37′5″W / 38.56722°N 86.61806°W / 38.56722; -86.61806Coordinates: 38°34′2″N 86°37′5″W / 38.56722°N 86.61806°W / 38.56722; -86.61806
Area 100 acres (40 ha)
Built 1901
Architect Harrison Albright; Oliver J. Westcott
NRHP Reference # 74000016[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP June 27, 1974
Designated NHL February 27, 1987[2]

The West Baden Springs Hotel is a historic landmark hotel in the town of West Baden Springs in Orange County, Indiana, United States, known for its vast domed atrium. It is currently part of the French Lick Resort. Prior to the completion of the Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1955, the building had the largest free-spanning dome in the United States and was the largest in the world from 1902 to 1913. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, became a National Historic Landmark in 1987,[3] and is a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The West Baden Springs Hotel is recognized as one of the Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust of Historic Preservation.[4]

Early history[edit]

George Rogers Clark is credited with discovering the salt licks and mineral springs in 1778.[5] The evidence of salt deposits enticed the government to plan on mining large quantities of salt for the demands of meat preservation to be used by the early pioneers. It was then determined the saline content was not sufficient to support the large scale extraction of salt and the property was offered for sale. Dr. William Bowles purchased the large tract of land where the French Lick Springs Resort now sits and built a small inn on the site. In 1832, the first French Lick Springs Hotel was constructed and the area became popular as a mineral springs resort. During the outbreak of the Mexican–American War, Dr. Bowles served as a commissioned officer in the US Army. Before leaving, Dr. Bowles signed a five-year lease with Dr. John Lane, who agreed to enlarge and improve the facility. Through the deal Dr. Bowles would enjoy an improved facility with the potential for increased business at the lease's end. Dr. Lane would get back his initial investment as well as improved trade. However, the war lasted less than two years, and Dr. Bowles returned early.

The land Bowles bought from the government included the mineral springs one mile (1.6 km) north of French Lick, known as Mile Lick. Much of the property surrounding the springs at Mile Lick was marshy, subject to yearly flooding, and unsuitable to farming. Lane envisioned a business surpassing that of French Lick, and in 1851, he purchased 770 acres (3.1 km2) from Bowles. Lane assembled a sawmill, then erected a bridge to traverse Lick Creek. He then built a fine hotel, larger than the French Lick Springs Hotel, and the competition began.[6][7]

West Baden[edit]

When Lane opened his hotel in 1852 near the settlement of Mile Lick, he named his establishment the Mile Lick Inn. The community was renamed West Baden in 1855 (after Wiesbaden, the German city known for its mineral springs), and the hotel name was changed likewise. In 1887, the Monon railroad built an extension to take guests to the hotels and springs at French Lick and West Baden, who competed tooth and nail to offer the best service, entertainment, food and mineral water. West Baden marketed their water under the brand name, “Sprudel Water” with an elf named Sprudel. French Lick sold "Pluto Water" using a red devil trademark.[8]

In the late 1800s, guests arrived from across the country on seven separate railroads for relaxation and the alleged curative powers of the mineral water.[5] Sidewalks led from the hotel to seven numbered springs, all of which were covered by open wooden shelters.

A group that included Lee Wiley Sinclair from Salem, Indiana, purchased the hotel and 667 acres (2.70 km2) in 1888 for $23,000[9] and over the next few years, he bought his partner's interest. Sinclair turned the facility into a cosmopolitan resort, including a casino advertised as "The Carlsbad of America",[10] an opera house and a two-deck, covered, one-third-mile oval bicycle and pony track. A lighted baseball diamond in the center of the track became the spring training grounds for several major league teams including the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. The whole structure burned down in the summer of 1901.[5] No guests were injured, but Sinclair was forlorn. He invited Thomas Taggart, who owned the French Lick Springs Hotel, to buy the West Baden property, but Taggart rebuffed the offer, boasting that he would expand his facility to handle more guests. Sinclair was outraged[11] and declared that his new hotel would be fireproof and would have the world's largest dome. Most building professionals rejected a 200-foot (61 m) skylight as impossible, but unknown West Virginia architect Harrison Albright designed the building and Oliver Wescott, a bridge engineer, designed the dome trusses. To complete the structure before the first anniversary of the fire, a 500-man crew worked six days a week in 10-hour shifts[11] for 270 days,[12]at a total cost of $414,000.[5][13][14]

Eighth Wonder[edit]

West Baden Springs Hotel Atrium

The new structure opened September 15, 1902 to rave reviews, and advertisements called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.[15] The resort's mineral water and baths were alleged to cure almost anything, and the hotel's amenities included a casino, live theater every night, opera, concerts, movies, bowling and billiards. Outside the hotel, guests had their choice of a natatorium, two golf courses, bicycling on a double-decked covered oval bicycle track that was the largest in the country at 1,760 feet (540 m), horseback riding, baseball, and several picturesque hiking trails. To cater to their well-heeled clientele, the hotel provided a bank and a stock brokerage. A trolley transported guests from the hotel's front door to nearby French Lick. Palm trees grew in the huge atrium where birds had free range and guests relaxed on overstuffed furniture grouped in clusters under the 200-foot (61 m) dome. The fireplace in the atrium was enormous in scale and could accommodate logs as long as 14 feet (4.3 m).

Some early advertisements claimed over 700 rooms, but most sources today cite around 500. The main building contained six floors: the ground floor held the lobby, hotel management offices, the dining area, shops and meeting rooms; saunas and mineral baths were located on the top floor; guest rooms were built in two concentric circles around the atrium on the second through fifth floors. Rooms on the inner ring overlooked the atrium; forty 4th and 6th floor rooms had balconies into the atrium.[3][5][16] The hotel rooms were small by today's standards. Most rooms had one or two twin beds, and did not have a private bathroom.[16]

West Baden Springs Hotel natatorium

Notable guests[edit]

Chris Bundy, who authored the book, West Baden Springs: Legacy of Dreams stated, "These hotels were the Disney World of their time. In those days, it was assumed that if you could afford to come to America [for vacation], you would go to French Lick. It was that well-known overseas."[17]

Beginning in the late 1880s, southern Indiana was a favorite destination of the wealthy, famous, infamous, and near-famous who would relax, golf, gamble, enjoy fine dining, and be entertained.[17]

Paul Dresser composed Indiana's state song "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" at the hotel. Boxers John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett trained there. Al Capone and his bodyguards were frequent guests as was Diamond Jim Brady. Politicians included Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson of Chicago and New York Governor Al Smith; also General John J. Pershing, writer George Ade, and entertainer Eva Tanguay.[3] Professional baseball teams even held their spring training in the region: Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals.[3][5][18]


Minor renovations began in 1913, but Sinclair died in 1916. His daughter, Lillian, and her husband, Charles Rexford, had taken over the hotel's operation several years prior when Sinclair's health began to fail. A February 11, 1917 fire incinerated the bottling plant, opera house, bowling alley and hospital, forcing their replacement.[19] Charles would not consent to major enhancements, but Lillian ignored his wishes and began a major restoration utilizing a Greco-Roman architectural style. During the years between 1917 and 1919, a mosaic terrazzo tile floor composed of 2 million one-inch squares of marble was installed in the Atrium by Italian artisans, and the huge fireplace was refaced with glazed ceramic tiles from the Rookwood Pottery Company.[14] Marble wainscotting was added to the atrium ground level walls, and the brick support columns were wrapped with canvas and painted to look like marble.[3][14] Outside, an elaborate veranda was constructed, the wooden shelters at the springs were replaced with brick structures, and a sunken garden was created with a fountain featuring an angel.[14]

John Edward Ballard began his career as a bowling alley worker in the hotel, but made a fortune by operating an illegal gambling business in the area. Ballard also owned several nationally recognized touring circuses. The hotel improvements were financed using money borrowed from Ballard. The hotel was used as Army hospital #35 between 1918 and 1919 for wounded soldiers returning from World War I.[3][14] Lillian was smitten by Lt. Charles Cooper during his stay at the hotel-hospital and fell in love. The Rexfords divorced in 1922; Lillian Sinclair sold the property to Ed Ballard for $1 million in 1923. Half the money repaid the debt to Ballard, and she kept the rest for her marriage to Cooper.[19]

As ownership of automobiles increased, Florida destinations became more popular, and business declined in West Baden. Ballard tried to replace those guests with trade shows and conventions; however, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 began a downward spiral for the hotel. As word of the plummeting market spread, people congregated in the brokerage firm's offices at the hotel to confirm the news. By morning, nearly all the guests had left. Ballard kept the facility open for over two years, but few people stayed in luxury hotels during the depression. He finally closed the hotel in June 1932, and chose not to sell it to anyone who would turn it into a speakeasy offering gambling and other vices. In 1934, he decided to donate the $7 million resort to a religious organization.[3][20]



The Jesuits removed most of the hotel's luxurious fixtures, furnishings and decorations as they converted the building into an austere seminary known as West Baden College, an affiliate of Loyola University Chicago.[20] The lobby was converted into a chapel, and stained-glass was installed in the windows and French doors.[21] The four Moorish towers were removed when they fell into disrepair. At the Spring houses, truckloads of stone were dumped into the mineral spring pools, then capped with concrete[8] and turned into shrines for the saints.[22]

The Jesuits established a cemetery for the seminary's priests, which received 39 interments over the years. When the Jesuits sold the facility, they retained ownership of that small parcel of land and the Catholic Church in French Lick agreed to maintain the site.[23]

The seminary operated for thirty years, but was closed following the 1963-1964 school year due to low enrollment and escalating maintenance costs.[3][5] The Jesuits returned to Chicago.[14]

Northwood Institute[edit]

On November 2, 1966 the Jesuits sold the property to Macauley and Helen Dow Whiting, who in turn donated it to Northwood Institute, a private college founded in Midland, Michigan, which operated a satellite campus of their business management school on the property until 1983.[24]

While Northwood was still open, basketball legend Larry Bird, who was born in West Baden, held basketball clinics and staged games in the atrium. Bird briefly attended Northwood after leaving Indiana University, and before resuming collegiate basketball at Indiana State University.[12]

After the school closed, a former Springs Valley resident purchased the property from Northwood in October 1983. H. Eugene MacDonald, who had owned other hotels, wanted to operate the restored hotel, but lacked the financial resources for the preservation work.[3] He executed a sale-and-leaseback with Los Angeles historical renovation developer Marlin Properties[14] for $1.5 million,[15] but a $250,000 payment from Marlin was returned NSF in 1985. Before MacDonald could begin foreclosure proceedings, Marlin declared bankruptcy, and the hotel's ownership was tied up in litigation for almost a decade.[5][25]


Both schools had maintained the building's structure, and it was in reasonably good shape when MacDonald purchased it. In 1987, the property was declared a National Historic Landmark, but Marlin spent nothing to preserve the building while it was in bankruptcy. Visitors continued to tour the structure until 1989, when it was declared unsafe, and closed.[5] During the winter of 1991, ice built up on the roof and in drainpipes, leading to the partial collapse of an exterior wall.[26] In 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the hotel as one of America's most endangered places. That same year, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (HLFI) matched an anonymous $70,000 donation, which paid for work to stabilize the main structure. Tie rods were installed, the roof was patched, drainage was improved on roof parapets, and the structure around the partially collapsed wall was secured. HLFI also composed promotional documents to help find a buyer, and promoted the creation of a local zoning and redevelopment commission.[5]

Minnesota Investment Partners (MIP) purchased the property in May 1994 for $500,000 from the bankruptcy receiver. Grand Casinos, Inc., an MIP investor, had provided the funding and held an option on the hotel, but was unsuccessful in their 1995 effort to pass "Boat on a Moat" legislation extending riverboat gambling to a proposed man-made lake adjacent to the hotel.[14] When Grand Casinos walked away from their option, MIP tried to sell the property for $800,000, but a year passed with no interest. In July 1996, MIP accepted a purchase offer of $250,000 from HLFI West Baden, Inc., a new affiliate of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. The money was again provided by an anonymous donor.[5]

Bill Cook, a billionaire entrepreneur and his wife, Gayle, from Bloomington, Indiana, have been involved with several historic preservation projects. In the summer of 1996, their Cook Group, Inc. initiated activities to stabilize structural integrity and begin exterior restoration, which would attract potential buyers. The 30-month first phase of the project was completed in early 1999 at a cost of $30 million—2½ times their initial commitment. However, in addition to the exteriors of the hotel and outbuildings, the garden was recreated, and the interior atrium, lobby, dining room and adjoining rooms were also completely restored.[5]

Over the next five years, the Cook Group spent another $5 million for maintenance.[5] The reconstruction was documented by WTIU Public Television in a special released in 1999. Called West Baden Springs: Save of the Century, the documentary chronicles the rise, demise, and restoration of the hotel. Using historical documents, photos, and archival footage, producer Eugene Brancolini shows how the property regained, and even surpassed, its former luxury. The video is available for purchase at the WTIU website: http://indianapublicmedia.org/shoptiu/products-page/history/west-baden-springs-save-century-dvd/

Casino Resort[edit]

HLFI West Baden unsuccessfully marketed the property nationally for over five years before realizing that casino gaming was the key to their success. Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana joined with the Cook Group, Boykin Lodging (owner of the French Lick Springs Hotel) and Orange County citizens to lobby the Indiana legislature. The members spent so much time in the capital they were known as "The Orange Shirts" for the color of their t-shirts bearing the slogan, "Save French Lick and West Baden Springs".[5]

Their legislation was finally approved in 2003 and the required local referendum easily passed. The Trump Organization was initially granted the gambling license by the Indiana Gaming Commission (IGC), but Trump's subsequent bankruptcy caused the selection process to begin again. The Cook family decided to form a new company, Blue Sky, LLC and submit their own application, before purchasing the French Lick Springs Hotel from Boykin Lodging. Blue Sky was awarded the gambling license during the summer of 2005, and the planning and permitting process for the Casino took off. Construction of the French Lick Resort Casino and renovation of the French Lick Springs Hotel occurred simultaneously in the fall of 2005.


West Baden Springs Hotel Natatorium

In the spring of 2006, HLFI West Baden signed over the West Baden Springs Hotel deed to Cook Group for a token amount in appreciation for the $35 million already invested.[5] Restoration of that facility resumed in the summer of 2006.

The French Lick Springs Hotel and French Lick Resort Casino opened together on November 3, 2006.

A Gala event on June 23, 2007 marked the reopening of the West Baden Springs Hotel, 75 years after it closed.[27] The reconfigured space contained 243 rooms and suites, fewer than half of the total in the original structure. The hotel's natatorium was rebuilt using historic photographs as a guide. The total cost of the complete restoration of the West Baden Springs Hotel totaled almost $100 million.[28] Indiana Landmarks holds a perpetual preservation easement on the West Baden Springs Hotel, which requires that any changes to the hotel's exterior or grounds be approved by Landmarks, even if ownership changes.[5]


West Baden Springs Hotel logo

The hotel was ranked 21st on the 2008 list of the Top 75 Mainland U.S. Resorts by Condé Nast magazine.[29]

In 2009, the American Automobile Association recognized the hotel as one of the top 10 U.S. historic hotels[30] and awarded it four diamonds.

The 2009 Zagat Survey included the hotel on their list of Top U.S. Hotels, Resorts & Spas.[31]

The West Baden Springs Hotel is recognized as one of the Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust of Historic Preservation.[32]

In popular culture[edit]

The resort at West Baden Springs is featured as the setting[33] of Michael Koryta's 2010 thriller So Cold the River.[34]



  1. ^ Staff (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ "West Baden Springs Hotel". National Historic Landmarks Program. National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-06-05. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Charleton, James H. (June 1985). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: West Baden Springs Hotel" (PDF). National Park Service.  and Accompanying four photos, exterior and interior, from 1973
  4. ^ http://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/west-baden-springs-hotel/
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p French Lick Resort website: History-West Baden Springs Hotel
  6. ^ "Mineral Springs and Health Resorts" History of Orange County, Indiana
  7. ^ Rhodes, A. J.: "The Pedigree of West Baden" French Lick and West Baden History and Story, 1904
  8. ^ a b Long, Linda: "Growing Up in West Baden" Linton-Stockton High Schools, West Baden Springs Project
  9. ^ Blatchley, William Stanley: "The mineral waters of Indiana: their location, origin and character" 1903, page 112
  10. ^ Yesterday's Indiana by Byron L. Troyer, E. A. Seeman Publishing, Inc., 1975, ISBN 0-912458-55-0, page 112
  11. ^ a b Marsh, Betsa:"Revived Indiana resorts mirror their gilded pasts" Dallas Morning News, September 4, 2010
  12. ^ a b Gin, Jr., Ward L.: "Lee Sinclair's Eighth Wonder of the World" Clan Sinclair Assn, June 2001
  13. ^ Conn, Earl L. (2006). My Indiana: 101 Places to See. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press. p. 200. ISBN 0-87195-195-9. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h "West Baden Springs Hotel Timeline" Linton-Stockton High Schools, West Baden Springs Project
  15. ^ a b "West Baden SpringsHotel" Indiana County History, Orange
  16. ^ a b Booker, Chad: "Hotel Rooms" Linton-Stockton High School, West Baden Springs Project
  17. ^ a b Coomes, Steve: "The Renaissance of French Lick" Edible Louisville, July/August 2010
  18. ^ http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/springtrainingsites-nl.shtml
  19. ^ a b Jarman, Jason: "Lillian Sinclair Rexford Cooper" Linton-Stockton High School, West Baden Springs Project
  20. ^ a b "Religion: Spa to Jesuits" Time magazine, July 9, 1934
  21. ^ Waggoner, Alison: "Stained Glass Windows" Linton-Stockton High School, West Baden Springs Project
  22. ^ Powers, Lindsay: "Jesuits" Linton-Stockton High School, West Baden Springs Project
  23. ^ Smith, Adam: "Jesuit Cemetery" Linton-Stockton High School, West Baden Springs Project
  24. ^ "Macauley Whiting" Spoke Business Info
  25. ^ Lundy, Jake: "H. Eugene MacDonald" Linton-Stockton High School, West Baden Springs Project
  26. ^ Curtis, Wayne (2007). "Back home in Indiana". Preservation 59 (3). pp. 40–47. 
  27. ^ Bob Hammel, “The Bill Cook story: ready, fire, aim!”, Google Books, p. 369, April 12, 2011
  28. ^ "French Lick Resort press release" Inside INdiana Business, November 3, 2008
  29. ^ "West Baden Outranks High Profile Resorts" Inside INdiana Business, November 3, 2008
  30. ^ "AAA Inspectors Pick Their Top Ten Historic Hotels for Independence Day". press release. American Automobile Association. 2009-06-23. Retrieved 2009-06-25. 
  31. ^ "West Baden Springs Hotel" Zagat ratings
  32. ^ http://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/west-baden-springs-hotel/
  33. ^ "Haunted 'River' Waters Flow Below A Grand Hotel," All Things Considered, National Public Radio, June 15, 2010 (accessed Nov 13 2011)
  34. ^ Michael Koryta, So Cold the River, Little, Brown and Company (2010), ISBN 978-0-316-05363-1

Additional reading[edit]

  • Bundy, Chris, West Baden Springs, Legacy of Dreams, 2001
  • Gatsos, Gregory S., History of the West Baden Springs Hotel, 2007
  • O'Brian, Patrick, Risen from the ashes: The history of West Baden Springs Hotel, 2011 ISBN 978-1-60414-258-7
  • Shigley, J. Robert, The jewel of the valley: A narrative & pictorial history of the Springs valley area and the West Baden Springs Hotel, 1991
  • Smith, John Martin, French Lick and West Baden Springs ISBN 0-7385-5133-3, Arcadia Publishing, 2007
  • Vaughn, James M., "The Dome in the Valley: The History and Rebirth of the West Baden Springs Hotel," ISBN 978-0-615-68549-6, 2013

External links[edit]