In 1855, the Mile Lick Inn 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 Baden-Baden, the great mineral spa of Europe. 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.
Sinclair’s daughter, Lillian and her husband Charles Rexford took on more active roles managing the hotel in 1912. Two years later, in an effort to improve the hotel’s first impression to guests, Lillian added the bricked paved front drive with 24 elaborate eagle-topped light standards and commissioned the double archway entrance, built by the International Steel & Iron Company in Evansville, Indiana.
After Sinclair passed away in 1916, Lillian began a grand renovation that continued until 1923. She left her mark in the atrium with a floor-to-ceiling transformation while also redoing the lobby and eventually the gardens. Before the outside renovations began, Lillian leased the hotel to the government and closed it to guests in the fall of 1918 while it served as United States Army Hospital #35 for WWI soldiers returning from overseas. After the war ended and the hotel was returned to the Sinclair family, Lillian’s grand renovations resumed. However because of those extensive renovation plans, she soon found herself indebted to local businessman Ed Ballard to the tune of $500,000. In September of 1923 Lillian made the decision to sell the West Baden Springs Hotel to Ballard for $1 million – half in cash and half in debt cancelation.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the hotel emptied of guests almost overnight. Ballard eventually closed the hotel in June 1932, and in 1934 he 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 that operated in the building until 1983.
While the colleges did not maintain the West Baden property in the same lavish style of the hotel in its prime, 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 statewide 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 nearby in Bloomington, stepped in to preserve both the French Lick and West Baden Springs Hotels. Under the direction of Bill and Gayle Cook and their son Carl, 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 a 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.