Hotel history: French Lick Springs Hotel

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The first hotel was built on this site in 1845 by Dr. William Bowles as a health resort to take advantage of the natural sulphur springs and mineral water.

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The first hotel was built on this site in 1845 by Dr. William Bowles as a health resort to take advantage of the natural sulphur springs and mineral water. The original hotel burned down in 1897 but was rebuilt on a grander scale by Thomas Taggart, the mayor of Indianapolis (and later a U.S. Senator). The Monon Railroad built a spur directly to the hotel grounds with daily passenger service to Chicago.

Casino gambling, although illegal, flourished at the resort. In its heyday in the Roaring Twenties, the surrounding Spring Valley had 30 hotels and 15 clubs. At the time, it was a lively community for gamblers, politicians, sport figures, entertainers and gangsters. The town got its name from the French traders who founded it and the salty mineral deposits that attracted wildlife. During the Prohibition years, French Lick had 13 casinos, all of them illegal. Famous guests who visited French Lick included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Adlai E. Stevenson, the Marx Brothers, Joe Louis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Douglas MacArtur, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

In the 1950s, Sheraton acquired the six-hundred room French Lick Springs Hotel for a million dollars for 1700 acres of land, the makings of an artificial lake, a shooting range, bridle paths, sulphur baths and two championship golf courses. After extensive remodeling, air-conditioning and modernizing, Ernest Henderson, President of Sheraton, wrote that “the renovated resort is definitely one of the brighter stars in the Sheraton constellation.” However, despite hotel-sponsored jazz and music festivals featuring Duke Ellington and Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops, the Sheraton French Lick Springs Hotel never fulfilled Henderson’s prediction. Some 50 years later in 2006 under new ownership, the French Lick Springs Resort reopened after a two-year historic renovation of its 443 guestrooms, restaurants, casino, spa and golf course.

The 1917 Donald Ross golf course at the French Lick Resort reopened in September 2006 unveiling a $4.6 million restoration of a famed course where Walter Hagen won the PGA championship in 1924. Similarly, Betsey Rawls walked off the 72nd hole in 1959 with an LPGA Championship defeating Patty Berg. Mickey Wright won the tournament there a year later. Notable celebrities who played the course include Bing Crosby, General Douglas MacArthur, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Joe Louis, and many other noted professional and amateur golfers through the decades.

The French Lick Resort’s new casino is as luxurious and as big as the original. The 84,000 square-foot casino features 1,200 slot machines and dozens of blackjack, roulette, craps and poker tables. The Resort has eight new restaurants, six-lane bowling, indoor tennis, riding stables and promenade shops. The casino was built in the shape of a riverboat and is surrounded by a moat (in accordance with the 1993 state law which permits gambling only on riverboats). French Lickers call it the Boat in the Moat. The French Lick Springs Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of America and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This article has been excerpted with the author’s permission from the book, “Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi,” AuthorHouse 2013. The author, Stanley Turkel, is a recognized authority and consultant in the hotel industry. He operates his hotel, hospitality and consulting practice specializing in asset management, operational audits and the effectiveness of hotel franchising agreements and litigation support assignments. Clients are hotel owners, investors and lending institutions. His latest book is “Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.