West Baden Springs Hotel, a National Historic Landmark
Rising up from the salt licks and mineral springs of Indiana, and from the ashes and rubble of this hotel’s storied past, West Baden Springs Hotel has stood the test of time for more than 100 years thanks to the visionary resolve of its founding owner, a group of determined preservations, two anonymous donors and one corporate benefactor.
Without the resolve of so many, West Baden Springs Hotel, an architectural wonder nestled in the heart of French Lick Resort, would have deteriorated into the land from which it rose. Today, Historic Hotels of America and the National Trust for Historic Preservation celebrate this hotel’s storied past and its ensuing glory as a National Historic Landmark:
From ashes to the Eighth Wonder of the World
Built in 1855, West Baden Springs Hotel began as Mile Lick, capitalizing on the healing waters of the area’s mineral springs, but a 1901 fire destroyed the entire structure in less than two hours. From the ashes, Lee W. Sinclair built the hotel of his dreams, creating a retreat unlike any other the United States had ever seen — six circular stories topped with one of the world’s largest freestanding domes at 100 feet high and 200 feet in diameter. Many had deemed Sinclair’s vision impossible, and so upon its 1902 opening, West Baden Springs Hotel became known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
From wonderment to economic crash
From 1902 to 1929, West Baden Spring Hotel was a perennial destination for elite travelers, attracting industrial pioneers, like the Studebakers, and 1920s gangsters, like “Diamond Jim” Brady and Al Capone. Notable sports figures, like prizefighter John L. Sullivan, were drawn to the hotel, and entire professional baseball teams held their spring training at the resort.
After Sinclair died in 1916, his daughter, Lillian, and her husband completed a massive three-year renovation, transforming the atrium floor into a marble mosaic that further set the hotel apart, but the renovations had overextended Lillian, and so she sold West Baden to Ed Ballard, an entrepreneur who operated the area’s classy gambling establishments.
Then, the roaring 20s came to a sudden halt with the stock market crash of 1929. Many guests witnessed the event from the offices of the hotel’s brokerage firm. Almost overnight, the resort emptied of guests, and by 1932, Ballard was forced to close the hotel, selling it to the Jesuits for one dollar in 1934.
From crash to college and back to rubble again
Transforming the hotel into a seminary, known as the West Baden College, the Jesuits removed many of the hotel’s extravagant appointments, even dismantling the building’s four Moorish towers. By 1964, enrollment at the seminary declined, and the Jesuits were forced to sell the building in 1966 to a Michigan couple that donated it to Northwood Institute, a private college, which operated the building as a satellite campus until 1983. During this time, in 1974, West Baden was listed as a National Historic Landmark.
The campus was eventually sold in 1985 to a real estate development firm, but after nearly 10 years of litigation in a Los Angeles federal bankruptcy court, West Baden began its long deterioration. Eventually, the lack of maintenance took its toll with a six-story section of the exterior wall collapsing in 1991, and just as it seemed the once-glorious hotel was beyond repair, Indiana Landmarks led the charge for historical preservation with an anonymous donor entering the picture in 1992. Still, much work needed to be done to resurrect the hotel from the rubble.
From rubble to true historic preservation
From 1996 to 1999, West Baden underwent a partial renovation in hopes the hotel would be able to withstand another Indiana winter. Another anonymous donor stepped forward, helping Indiana Landmarks purchase the property under a subsidiary for $250,000 with Cook Group. Inc., a corporate benefactor, leading the partial renovation. The Cook family and company would eventually rack up $32 million on the Phase I restoration to make the property more attractive for redevelopment.
But West Baden still wasn’t out of the rubble yet.
Developers deemed West Baden too large, too remote and too odd, and so the Indiana Landmarks struggled to sell the half-restored West Baden Springs Hotel. A gambling license appeared to be the property’s only hope, and in 2003, the Indiana legislation approved a casino for the area. The Indiana Landmarks’ subsidiary sold the West Baden Springs Hotel to the Cooks’ subsidiary in 2006 for $5 with credit for the millions the Cook family had already invested in the restoration. The Cooks then went on to lead a joint venture in the final restoration, and in May 2007, West Baden Springs Hotel re-opened, offering overnight accommodations for the first time since 1932.
Nearly 250 guestrooms, including 40 Balcony Rooms, now wrap the hotel’s six circular stories. A Pete Dye-designed golf course was added to the French Lick Resort, and the historic natatorium is now home to The Spa at West Baden. Today, tile mosaics, historic artifacts and antique furniture transport guests back to an era when the hotel had opened as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Rising from the ashes and rubble, European grandeur continues to rise up from Indiana’s historic salt licks.