Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: West Baden Springs Hotel (1902), West Baden Springs, Indiana*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
In 1855, the town of Mile Lick, a mile north of the giant salt lick and springs in French Lick, was renamed West Baden. In 1888, Lee Wiley Sinclair acquired controlling interest in the large plot of land and later built a new hotel. It opened on September 15, 1902 and was called "the Eighth Wonder of the World". Sinclair promoted his hotel as a cosmopolitan resort including a casino known as "The Carlsbad of America", an opera house, a two-deck covered oval bicycle and pony track. The Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates held their spring training in the area. Unfortunately the entire resort and attractions burned down in 1901. Sinclair offered the West Baden property to Tom Taggart, owner of the French Lick Springs Hotel but Taggart refused and instead expanded his hotel.
Lee Sinclair was rejuvenated by Taggart's rejection and embarked on a major construction project in an attempt to surpass the French Lick Springs Hotel. The major attraction of the new hotel was the circular building topped by a spectacular dome, designed by architect Harrison Albright, which was the world's largest free-spanning dome until the Houston Astrodome in 1965. Later in his career Albright designed the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego, California. West Baden, in competition with French Lick, marketed its mineral water under the brand name "Sprudel Water" with an elf named Sprudel. French Lick sold "Pluto Water" using a red devil trademark. These two spectacular resort/casino hotels in southern Indiana were favorite destinations for the famous and wealthy such as New York Governor Al Smith, General John J. Pershing, writer George Ade, entertainer Eva Tanguay, Diamond Jim Brady, Al Capone, boxers John L. Sullivan, and James J. Corbett.
After Sinclair died in 1916, his daughter Lillian and her husband Charles Rexford ran the hotel until 1923 when their marriage broke up and the hotel was sold to Ed Ballard. The Great Depression caused such a sharp reduction in business that Ballard closed the hotel in 1932 and in 1934 donated it to a Christian religious group.
The Jesuit seminary operated for thirty years until the 1963-64 school year when they sold it to Macauley and Helen Dow Whiting who, in turn, donated it to Northwood Institute, a private business college founded in Midland, Michigan. The school operated until 1983 when it was purchased by H. Eugene MacDonald who could not secure financing for a hotel conversion. The hotel's ownership was tied up in litigation for almost a decade. After years of deterioration, Minnesota Investment Partners purchased the hotel but could not get approval for a "Boat on a Moat" casino. Finally in 1996, the Cook Group, Inc. spent $30 million to stabilize the structural integrity and began exterior restoration of the hotel and outbuildings, garden, interior atrium, lobby, dining room, and meeting rooms.
However, it was not until the Indiana legislature approved casino gambling in 2003 that the West Baden Springs Hotels was fully renovated and reopened in 2007. The hotel had been closed for 75 years. The new West Baden Springs Hotel contains 243 rooms and suites, less than half of the original structure. The total cost of the complete restoration was $100 million.
Located less than a mile from the French Lick Springs Hotel and French Lick Casino, the West Baden Springs Hotel offers a two-level natatorium with dedicated spa, fine dining restaurant, and five retail outlets. The unique natatorium/spa features a 12,000-square-foot indoor pool and 8,000-square-foot spa, including treatment rooms, relaxation rooms, and state-of-the-art fitness center. West Baden hotel guests are able to take advantage of all of French Lick Resort Casino's amenities, including the 42,000-square-foot casino, horseback riding, tennis, bowling, and more.
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.