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Hotel history: West Baden Springs versus French Lick

Written by editor

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 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 West Baden Hotel. 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 Taggert, owner of the French Lick Springs Hotel but Taggert refused and instead expanded his hotel.

Lee Sinclair was rejuvenated by Taggert’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. The new hotel opened on September 15, 1902 and was called “the Eighth Wonder of the World”. These two spectacular but illegal 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 and many more.

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 it was sold to Macauley and Helen Dow Whiting who 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 (MIP) 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 2006. The hotel had been closed for 75 years. The new West Baden Springs Hotel features six circular stories with 243 rooms and suites including 40 balcony rooms that offer a spectacular view of the atrium. The 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 is an architectural marvel which 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 a 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 biking, hiking, tennis, bowling and 63 holes of championship golf at Peter Dye and Donald Ross-designed courses.

The West Baden Springs Hotel is a National Historic Landmark and is a member of Historic Hotels of America.

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.”