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College Days under the Dome: Northwood Memories from a Different Era of West Baden

March 30, 2023
Judith Dunlap

Judith Dunlap

If you follow French Lick Resort on Facebook, you probably recognize the name from the comment section.

She’ll leave a “heart” on anything and everything related to West Baden Springs Hotel. She talks about it to everyone. Friends. Strangers.

Everyone needs a superfan, and Judith Dunlap is ours.

“It is one of my favorite subjects,” she says of West Baden Springs Hotel. When she’s here visiting the resort and gets on one of her West Baden kicks, “I start talking about the dome my hubby just goes to the casino,” Judith jokes.

There’s a good reason for the love and obsession. “Judy” as she was better known to friends back then, lived and attended classes at the dome from 1976-78 when Northwood Institute inhabited the hotel prior to its restoration. And she’s got plenty of stories to share about her time there…

West Baden

Growing up in a small town 45 minutes away, Judith's family would escape for Sunday drives through West Baden:

“That’s the first time we drove by the dome. My sister and I were in the back of our old station wagon and we couldn’t even see how massive (the hotel) was. It was when the Jesuits were there and my parents said we couldn’t stop. So I didn’t get to see it see it, but that was the first time I heard about it.

In 1974, our high school had their prom there and I was just a sophomore but I got to come. When we got here and started walking up, I was just in awe. I thought it was the grandest structure. A lot of people talk about how run down it was when Northwood was there; of course it didn’t have the grand towers and everything. But to me, seeing something like that in your own state and so close to where you live, ‘wow this is really cool.’ When we walked into the dome I was so busy looking up, and the floor was buckled. I actually tripped and almost fell flat on my face but my date caught me, thank goodness. There was a guy in his underwear standing in one of the balconies on the fourth floor, so that was kind of a sight to see. But then we got to the dining room and that was incredible … I saw the veranda and I could imagine walking around holding hands on that beautiful veranda. I just thought it was so grand. I always tell people I didn’t fall in love with my date that night, but I fell in love with the dome that night.”

Collage of couple past and present

Judith and husband Kerry at the dome, then and now.

Later in high school, a weekend visit to see a friend at Northwood turned into meeting her future husband:

“I was up on the second landing where you first come in from the sunken gardens, and that was the place people would hang out because you could kind of sit and watch everybody. I see this guy walking across the atrium floor, and he’s got this long hair, I said ‘he’s really cute.’ Later we’re sitting in the middle of the atrium and this guy comes up with a friend and asks if we want to go up to Third Cabin, people used to party and hang out up there. He was a complete gentleman … and that’s my husband who I’ve been married to for 44 years now. That’s how I saw him, and I decided college life wouldn’t be so bad, and I went home and told my parents I wanted to enroll at Northwood.”

The Northwood Institute library

The Northwood Institute library

Attending classes in the old hotel building wasn’t too much of a stretch, because the Jesuits inhabited it before Northwood and had already converted it for educational use:

“Most of our classrooms were over the old garage for the hotel, because the Jesuits had already turned them into classrooms. The one speech class I took was in the old ballroom (on the second floor) above the dining room. And I had one poly sci class on the first floor where the professors and dean had their offices. When you came in from the sunken gardens, a room to the right was our lounge and it had a small TV sitting up on a shelf. It was when Saturday Night Live was really new, and on Saturday nights you’d have all the students crammed into this little lounge.”

playing in the atrium

After the building reopened as a hotel years later, it was easy to locate her old college dorm room:

“Where our (dorm) room was, when you come in the sunken gardens entrance, go up the stairs and you round the corner to the left and it’s right there. I got to stay in my room twice — I requested it because it was easy to find.

We had the perfect view – we could see the fireplace where all the kids hung out, we could see who was walking to the dining room … we had the best view all around to see what was going on.”

The dining room, which is now Sinclair's Restaurant.

The dining room, which is now Sinclair's Restaurant.

The 2nd and 3rd floors housed dorm rooms that were (mostly) separated:

The girls were on one half of the 2nd and 3rd floors, over on the sunken garden side, and the guys were on the other half on the 2nd and 3rd floors. That’s how they divided us up, and at night they would shut the fire doors you had to have a key to get on your floor after 11:00. Of course, that didn’t keep people from sneaking in and out. … There was one room that everyone always wanted. You could crawl out the window to the top of the roof over the veranda, and you could walk on the top of the roof and climb into a lounge that was on the third floor. It was used quite a bit to sneak people in and out. It was also a perfect place to sunbathe.”

And anything above the third floor was supposed to be off limits unless you had a reason to be there:

My husband was one who went exploring. He and one of his buddies found a door with a padlock on it. He peeked through the transom and there was a statue – I think it was the statue of Jesus that used to be out in the sunken gardens (during the Jesuit era). He got down and said ‘there’s something or someone in there, but I’m not sure what it is.’”

Chilly memories from the Northwood yearbook.

Chilly memories from the Northwood yearbook.

The winter of 1976-77 was infamously chilly inside the dome:

“The old boiler went out and so we had no heat at all. It was freezing in that building. You had no water heater to heat up your water, so we were eating off paper plates, and then you took cold showers. Just going in to use the restroom on the cold seat … you didn’t want to go, and you definitely didn’t want to take a shower but you still had to. I can still remember taking cold water and splashing it on you as fast as you can. We were literally sleeping in our coats and gloves and hats. I had an old bonnet hair dryer, and I stuck the hose of the dryer under my covers and warmed up my bed. The bad thing was, it made it so warm and toasty I never wanted to get out of bed. Kerry’s room was on the second floor right by the fireplace, and his room was so toasty.

sitting by the fireplace

That winter had a lot of snow – it wasn’t the Blizzard of ‘78 but it had a lot of snow, too. Some of the guys who had pickup trucks went out and cut big old logs, brought them back, put them in the fireplace. So there was a lot of huddling around the fireplace. Even when we had heat, as long as someone was willing to go out there and cut logs, we would roast hot dogs and s’mores. Somebody had a guitar and they’d like to play music by the fireplace.”

Another favorite hangout place for many students? On the top of the dome:

“You had to go up to the sixth floor, and then there was a little door you could climb out and you’d be on top of the roof, then you’d walk around to a ladder and climb on top of the dome. My friend and I were afraid of heights … but we said ‘do we want to be known as the only students who never climbed to the top of the dome?’ So we waited until spring and went to one of the RAs who was really cool and asked if he’d take us up there. When we got out there and I saw the ladder I’m like, ‘what did I get myself into?’ But we went up there to the very top, and I wish I had done it sooner. Some people went up on top of the dome at night and they talked about the stars and the moon and how cool it looked. I’m sure when you were up there it looked like you could just reach out and touch them.”

friends on the dome

Even after Judith graduated from Northwood and moved a few hours away, she never really left:

“I loved living at the Dome so much that I never wanted to leave. It was two of the best years of my life. (After graduation) I came back the very next year for their festival and the car show – fall was one of my favorite times because the automotive students had the car show where they’d bring in all the new cars and display them in the atrium. … Even when it was at its absolute worst in the early ‘90s after the outside wall collapsed, I was still coming and going on paid tours of the building. On a low estimate, I went on over 50 paid tours before it reopened in 2007, because we were keeping an eye on what was or wasn’t being done with it.

I was here for when the towers came back in 1998. I told my husband, ‘all I want for our anniversary is I want to sit in the gardens and I want to watch those towers come back.’ It was unbelievable. I sat there taking pictures and had tears streaming down my face. It was just so cool to see it.”

tower with helicopter

Almost 40 years later, the magic is still there every single time Judith comes back to visit her old college stomping grounds:

“Whenever I’m at West Baden, I always feel like I can feel the other eras that came beforehand. And I know a lot of people post comments like, ‘when you come there you feel like you’re back in time.’ I’ve always felt a connection so much to the dome, but I feel like more like it’s a friend. When we heard the Cook family had bought it and they were going to try to restore both hotels to the way it should be, I literally jumped for joy. I was so happy. It was like watching it rise from the ashes, almost. 

I say it all the time, the Cook family surpassed my wildest dreams (in renovating the hotel). As much as I dreamed about how grand I thought it would look … they totally blew my mind going into all the little details and trying to (restore) everything the way it used to look like.”

friends sitting on a stoop

A garden study session by the Apollo Spring House during the Northwood days.

A garden study session by the Apollo Spring
House during the Northwood days.

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