The Disney World of its Day: French Lick’s West Baden Springs Hotel
By Mary Giorgio
“[West Baden and French Lick Springs] were the Disney World of their time. In those days, it was assumed that if you could afford to vacation in America, you would go to French Lick.”
~Chris Bundy, Author of West Baden Springs: Legacy of Dreams
In the mid-1800s, French Lick, Indiana, emerged as a popular tourist destination among Americans looking for a cure-all from the area’s abundant mineral springs. West Baden Springs Hotel was constructed to provide shelter for these visitors but quickly evolved into a luxury hotel that attracted an elite crowd of movie stars, politicians, sports players, and international tourists. Abandoned in the wake of the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929, today West Baden has been restored to its former glory.
Mineral springs were utilized by Native Americans prior to European settlement. In 1778, George Rogers Clark became the first European to discover the unique natural feature in the Indiana Territory. After Indiana became a state, officials considered mining the area. However, the idea was abandoned and in 1832, the property was sold to Dr. William Bowles. Dr. Bowles believed that the ample mineral springs would make the area the perfect location for a health resort. In the early 1840s, Dr. Bowles opened the area’s first hotel, the French Lick Springs Hotel, to accommodate the many wealthy patrons he hoped would flock to the site.
In 1836, Dr. Bowles left Indiana to serve in the Mexican-American War. Prior to leaving, he leased his hotel and adjoining property to John Lane. Bowles’ land included a marshy area around several mineral springs about a mile from the French Lick Springs Hotel. Lane came to believe that the site would be the perfect place for a second hotel. In 1851, he purchased 770 acres from Dr. Bowles and began construction. The Mile Lick Hotel opened in 1852. In 1855, the surrounding community was renamed West Baden after the popular European spa Baden-Baden. The Mile Lick Hotel followed suit and became the West Baden Springs Hotel.
In 1883, West Baden Springs Hotel was sold to investors. In 1887, the Monon Railroad built an extension line to bring travelers to the two French Lick hotels. The following year, Lee Sinclair and E. R. Rhodes purchased the West Baden Springs Hotel at a cost of $23,000. Lee Sinclair was a successful businessman and owner of the Bank of Salem in nearby Salem, Indiana. Under Sinclair’s guidance, the hotel began a rapid expansion in both amenities and guest rooms. Upgrades included elevators, electric lights, and steam heat. By 1896, a casino was added across the street.
Then, in 1901, tragedy struck the West Baden Springs Hotel. A kitchen fire completely engulfed the hotel in flames within 90 minutes. Despite their best efforts, firefighters were unable to contain the blaze. By the time the fire burned out, the hotel and several outbuildings had been destroyed. Remarkably, no one was injured. Thanks to the staff’s quick thinking, all 268 guests were evacuated from the hotel within the first 15 minutes.
Determined to start anew, Sinclair made plans to rebuild his hotel with bigger and better amenities for guests. The new structure, Sinclair declared, would be an architectural marvel rivaling some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Sinclair wanted the work done quickly. He found an architect to match his ambition in Harrison Albright. Mr. Albright agreed to the one-year challenge, building a magnificent structure complete with the world’s largest freestanding dome (the record would later be broken by the Houston Astrodome in the 1960s.) The new structure was so magnificent that it was dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
The new West Baden Springs Hotel cost a total of $414,000. It opened on September 15, 1902, to rave reviews. A massive, grand fireplace and oversized luxurious sofas and chairs greeted guests in the first-floor atrium. Luxury guest rooms were plentiful on the second through fifth floors. The sixth floor boasted saunas and mineral baths. The hotel even had a bank and stock brokerage.
Entertainment options included gambling, live theater, opera, concerts, movies, bowling, and billiards. Outdoors, the hotel grounds included a natatorium, two golf courses, stables, and a double-decker oval-shaped track for hiking and cycling. A baseball diamond was constructed inside the track.
Just down the street, the French Lick Springs Hotel was West Baden’s main source of competition. The French Lick Springs Hotel was owned by former Indianapolis mayor Thomas Taggart, and a bitter rivalry existed between him and Sinclair. For years, the hotels competed to outdo their competition in everything – the best food, the best mineral springs, the best entertainment, and the best illegal gambling connections.
Both hotels offered luxury accommodations frequented by wealthy patrons, movie stars, major-league sports players, and popular politicians. Writer George Ade visited West Baden on occasion. Greta Garbo and John Barrymore were known to have stayed at both West Baden and French Lick Springs Hotel. Composer Paul Dresser wrote, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” while in residence there. Even mob boss Al Capone was rumored to have visited West Baden.
Several major-league baseball teams conducted their spring training at the hotel’s baseball field. The Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies were among the teams to practice there. The 1908 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs spent their spring training season at West Baden. Both West Baden and French Lick Springs Hotel also had staff teams composed of African American players. The teams battled each other and visiting major-league teams for the entertainment of hotel guests.
After Lee Sinclair died in 1916, his daughter Lillian Rexford and her husband Charles took over hotel operations. Lillian immediately embarked on a massive remodeling scheme, despite her husband’s objections. Lillian hired artists from Italy to install an elaborate mosaic tile floor in the atrium. She imported glazed ceramic tile for the fireplace from the famed Rookwood Pottery Company. An elaborate veranda was constructed outside. To finance the renovations, Lillian obtained a $500,000 loan from Edward Ballard, owner of an illegal gambling facility nearby.
Lillian and Charles divorced in 1922, prompting the sale of the West Baden Springs Hotel to Ballard. Lillian sold the hotel for $1 million, then promptly repaid Ballard the $500,000 loan. Ballard’s success as a hotel owner was short-lived. The Wall Street crash of 1929 spelled doom for the hotel’s operations. The hotel’s brokerage office was quickly inundated with concerned investors following news of the crash. Within a few hours, the hotel had emptied of guests. Ballard hoped to weather the storm, but it was not to be. There was no demand for luxury hotels during the Great Depression, and in 1932, the resort closed its doors.
Failing to find a suitable buyer, Ballard donated the property to the Jesuits in 1934 for use as an educational institution. The Jesuits removed many of the building’s opulent architectural features. Following the Jesuits departure in 1964, the building became home to Northwood Institute, a private college. When Northwood closed its doors, the property deteriorated. In 1989, it was closed to the public due to safety concerns.
When a portion of the building collapsed in 1991, Indiana Landmarks, the largest statewide historic preservation group n the US, stepped in to save the structure. They paid contractors to stabilize the building, before selling it to investors in 1994. The Cook Group (makers of medical devices) later provided the funds needed to restore both West Baden and the French Lick Springs Hotel. The once competing hotels were joined as one huge resort when they reopened in 2007 and 2008.
Today, West Baden Springs Hotel once again operates as a luxury hotel. It has been completely restored and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel features 243 rooms and suites, along with numerous amenities including stables, a golf course, and a nearby casino. A trip to West Baden is once again an exclusive getaway filled with world-class indulgences.