French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs Hotels were the iconic symbols of great economic achievement back in the early 1900s for rural southern Indiana. The region of Orange County, with its small towns of French Lick and West Baden, became a famed vacation and gathering place for wealthy and prominent society members.
In 1845, Dr. William Bowles built French Lick Springs Hotel, which drew guests from as far as 100 miles away to partake of the “miracle waters” from the sulfur springs that naturally surfaced in the area. Five years later, another doctor by the name of John Lane saw the success of French Lick Springs Hotel and decided to build his own health resort just one mile up the road and named it Mile Lick Inn. He later changed the name of the hotel, and the town, to West Baden Springs after the famous mineral springs in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Lee W. Sinclair transformed West Baden Springs Hotel into a sophisticated resort when he assumed ownership in 1888. He added an opera house, golf courses, church, ball field and double-decker pony and bicycle track. A fire ravaged the hotel in 1901 but Sinclair used the opportunity to further transform West Baden Springs Hotel into a world-class facility. With a $414,000 budget and a one-year timeline, Sinclair erected a hotel modeled after the grandest spas of Europe, complete with the world’s largest free-span dome which stretched 200 feet.
That same year, French Lick Springs Hotel also rose to international prominence after Indianapolis Mayor Tom Taggart purchased the property. He expanded the hotel and added luxurious furnishings and marble floors, designed two championship golf courses and started bottling Pluto Water for national sale. During this time, Mr. Taggart became the Democratic National Chairman and French Lick Springs Hotel became the unofficial headquarters for the Democratic National Party. During the Democratic Governor’s Conference at French Lick in 1931, Franklin Delano Roosevelt rounded up support for the party’s presidential nomination; a year later he became the official Democratic candidate and won the presidency in 1932.
While French Lick Springs Hotel remained a functioning resort over the next 100 years, the same could not be said for West Baden Springs Hotel. After the stock market crash of 1929, the hotel was sold to the Society of Jesus for one dollar in 1934. The Jesuits removed many of the building’s elegant appointments and operated it as a seminary for 30 years. Northwood College was the next tenant, from 1967 to 1983, and then the magnificent building sat unoccupied for 13 years.
When a 180-foot, six-story section of West Baden Springs Hotel collapsed in 1991, it crumbled further from its glory days. The once-lavish hotel — dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by journalists when it opened — was reduced to a pile of rubble. It now had a not-so-prestigious place on the National Trust’s list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Properties in the United States.
Luckily for the withering structure, help was nearby. Indiana Landmarks, the largest nonprofit preservation group in the nation, partnered with philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook to make a permanent, positive impact on both the hotel and the depressed region around it. In addition to pioneering medical advances, Bill and Gayle, along with son Carl, had become revered leaders of the American historical restoration movement by acquiring and rehabbing dozens of buildings throughout the state. They wanted their work to result in living, breathing historic places that would be around for centuries to come.
French Lick Resort was the ideal target. Mr. Cook’s initial handshake on a multi-million dollar pledge for the stabilization and partial renovation of West Baden Springs Hotel got the ball rolling on a much more ambitious plan than anyone could have imagined. Their investment not only saved West Baden Springs Hotel, but also restored French Lick Springs Hotel to its former glory.
The refurbished French Lick Springs Hotel and its new casino officially opened in November 2006, and the large part of the restoration of West Baden Springs Hotel started the next day. When it was all said and done, it required about $600 million in renovations to create the resort you see today. More than a decade after “The Save of the Century,” tourism is once again thriving in the area.