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7 Surprising Things That Happened in the West Baden Springs Hotel Atrium

March 07, 2024
West Baden Springs Hotel Atrium

The West Baden Springs Hotel is made for an afternoon with a good book in the sunlight. An evening of sipping cocktails with live music and lively conversation. Maybe a nice dinner at Ballard’s. Or just finding a spot on the couch and letting life slow down for a bit.

The next time you savor the serenity of the atrium, consider this: Some pretty wild things have gone down in this serene sanctuary of relaxation.

Would you believe a basketball camp, boxing match, an actual circus, and even a funeral? All true. Here’s 7 unexpected things that have gone down in the atrium over the years.

Historic West Baden Springs Hotel

Larry Bird’s Basketball Camp

Imagine what it’d be like shooting jumpers in the spacious backdrop of the atrium and making bounce passes on the tile floor. In the presence of a few NBA superstars, too.

Historic West Baden Springs HotelThat really happened for a couple summers in the early 1980s. Early on during his pro career with the Boston Celtics, hometown hero Larry Bird came back home to French Lick for a couple summers to host a basketball camp for kids. At the time, Northwood Institute used West Baden Springs Hotel for its college classes and dorms. But when they cleared out for the summer, it became a makeshift hoops fieldhouse.

More than a dozen portable basketball goals were brought in, court lines were taped onto the tile floor, and kids came from as far as 300 miles away for the camp. Bird even brought in some of his NBA buddies for the occasion, including Kevin McHale, for some young, wide-eyed campers. 

Historic West Baden Springs Hotel

Boxing Matches

Uppercuts and TKOs in the atrium are an even more unexpected combo. Believe it or not, boxers really exchanged blows in the center of the atrium.

Starting in the late 1800s when the hotel built sports facilities, West Baden became a training ground for elite boxers of the era. Thanks to new training opportunities and word of mouth, boxers (including the likes of Joe Louis) were drawn to the area to condition, train or recover.

This photo from 1919 isn’t exactly 2021 high-res quality. But you can see the boxing ring spotlighted in the middle of the atrium and get a sense for the amazing dichotomy this must have been to see — a little bloodshed in such an elegant setting.

Historic West Baden Springs Hotel

1918 Circus for Army Hospital Guests

“All day long the celebrated atrium, one of the largest rooms in the world, rang and sang with laughter and greeting, from early in the morning when we were romantically awakened by the sound of the reveille until we closed our eyes that evening.”

The atrium has seen plenty over its 119 years of existence. This very well might be the most mesmerizing. Complete with five lions, a large white horse, and four elephants that may have had to walk on their knees to squeeze under the doorway into the atrium.

During a 7-month span in 1917-18 during World War I, the hotel closed to guests and was repurposed as an Army hospital. On Christmas Day in 1918, the recovering soldiers were treated to a massive circus performance in the atrium, featuring animal performers from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus that had its winter headquarters in West Baden. From their hotel rooms and balconies, the soldiers watched the spectacle that was topped off with a 50-foot-tall live Christmas pine in the middle of the atrium. Talk about a sight to behold. Read More Here

Historic West Baden Springs Hotel

Car Shows

When you’ve got a 30,000 square-foot area, you gotta put it to good use, right? The atrium proved to be a prime location for car shows during the era when Northwood Institute used the building for its classes and dorms from the mid-1960s through the early ’80s.

This picture is probably from circa 1970. Notice the irregularity in the floor near the center of the atrium. Part of the floor buckled from years of wear, and it had to be filled in with concrete. But it was just a minor bump when it came time to moving vehicles indoors for the car show. As Northwood featured an automotive marketing program as one of its majors, car shows were a semi-regular occurrence.

Historic West Baden Springs Hotel

Ed Ballard (at left in the photo above) and Lee Sinclair (below)

Ed Ballard and Lee Sinclair Funerals

Hey, we never said this list was all fun and games. The two men who owned West Baden Springs Hotel during its heyday were both mourned in the atrium of the hotel they built to prominence.

Historic West Baden Springs HotelBoth funerals required a large space to accommodate crowds of hundreds, since both men were influential figures beyond their hotel ownership.

Sinclair was heavily involved in business and banking before he was the hotel’s chief executive from 1888-1912. Prior to that, he was even elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1886. Ballard’s fame was on a national scope, as a business tycoon who dabbled in everything from the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus to the underground casinos in French Lick and West Baden that helped his hotel business. He owned the hotel from 1923-1934, and his death in 1936 drew media coverage from the Indianapolis Star to Time Magazine.

Historic West Baden Springs Hotel
Putting Green

This atrium photo in one that contains a little more mystery. Our resort historian, Jeff Lane, isn’t exactly sure if this putting exhibition is a competition, a one-time event or a recurring activity that guests could enjoy.

What we do know is this snapshot is around 100 years old, likely from the late 1910s or early 1920s. Regardless of what’s happening in the photo, it’s yet another example of how the atrium was a versatile stage for any type of activity. And this putting exhibition is attracting quite the audience.  

“Chariot” Races

From as early as the 1870s, West Baden Springs Hotel became a favorite locale for professional associations and trade groups to hold their meetings and conventions. The hotel welcomed hundreds of huge groups — everything from the Commercial Law League of America to the Undertakers’ Association of Indiana.

Fraternities and sororities were among the groups who favored West Baden for their gatherings. And as James Vaughn described in his “Dome in the Valley” book on West Baden, one fraternity really made themselves at home during their visit.

“One fraternity’s magazine described their convention antics, which included ‘the chariot races — in dish carts — around the atrium of the hostelry at West Baden in 1927.”

(Public service announcement: If you’re visiting today, no dish cart races in the atrium, please and thank you.)


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