Creation of "The Eighth Wonder of the World"
In 1855 the Mile Lick Hotel was built to capitalize on the abundance of mineral springs in the area. The name was later changed to West Baden Springs Hotel as it was fashioned after the great mineral spa of Europe, Baden Baden. Lee W. Sinclair transformed West Baden into a sophisticated resort, adding an opera house, a casino, a two-deck pony and bicycle track and a full-size baseball field. Sadly, in June of 1901 a fire destroyed the entire lodging structure in less than two hours. Thankfully, all of the guests escaped harm.
Sinclair used this tragedy as his opportunity to build the hotel of his dreams. He envisioned a circular building topped with the world's largest dome, decorated like the grandest spas of Europe. Architect Harrison Albright of West Virginia, accepted Sinclair’s commission and agreed to complete the project within a year. The new hotel, complete with a 200-foot diameter atrium and fireplace that burned 14 foot logs opened for business in June of 1902.
After Sinclair died in 1916, his daughter, Lillian, and her husband took over the hotel's operation and completed a massive renovation effort that left their finances overextended. In 1923 Lillian sold the hotel to Ed Ballard for one million dollars.
When the stock market crashed in 1929 the hotel emptied of guests almost overnight. Eventually Ballard closed the hotel in June 1932 and in 1934 sold it to the Jesuits for one dollar. The Jesuits removed many of property’s elegant appointments and eventually dismantled the building's four Moorish towers. The seminary, known as West Baden College, operated until 1964 when declining enrollment led the Jesuits to close the facility. A Michigan couple purchased the property in 1966 and donated it to Northwood Institute, a private college, which operated in West Baden until 1983.
While the colleges did not maintain the West Baden property in the same lavish style it exhibited during the hotel era, it was relatively well cared for until 1985 when Northwood sold it to a real estate development firm. That firm soon declared bankruptcy and the property was tangled in years of litigation.
In 1974 West Baden was listed as a National Historic Landmark but the elements took their toll on the neglected hotel and it was closed to the public in 1989 for safety reasons. In January 1991 a buildup of ice and water on the roof and in drainpipes caused the collapse of a portion of the exterior wall. Indiana Landmarks, the country’s largest state-wide historic preservation organization, led the charge to stabilize the hotel to preserve redevelopment potential, and attract a new owner capable of restoring the property for a new use. In 1992 Indiana Landmarks spent $140,000 to stabilize the hotel, matching a $70,000 contribution from an anonymous donor.
In May 1994 the hotel was sold to Minnesota Investment Partners [MIP] for $500,000. Grand Casinos, Inc., an investor in the purchase, optioned the hotel from MIP. The COOK Group, Inc., a global medical device manufacturing company, headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana, stepped in to preserve both French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel. Under the direction of Bill, Gayle and their son, Carl Cook, both hotels and their grounds received a multi-million dollar renovation returning them to the grandeur of the days of Sinclair and uniting them as one resort. In 2006, French Lick Springs Hotel reopened after an extensive renovation and new addition, French Lick Casino. The original 1917 “Hill Course” was reopened and restored as The Donald Ross Course. With the completion of the West Baden Springs Hotel restoration in 2007 French Lick Resort was born.