Tuesday, June 21, 2016

No Place Like Home: the West Baden Springs Hotel, near French Lick, Indiana--June 21, 2016

Leaving Kentucky on Hwy 231, we entered the Hoosier State for the first time.  Turning east on Interstate 64 brought us to the Hoosier State Forest, fittingly, and a short drive north on the lovely Hwy 37 brought us soon to French Lick, a drive of about 2 1/2 hours from Bowling Green.  After looking around at French Lick and getting directions to our hotel, we headed up the road to West Baden Springs itself and one of the Hotel Wonders of the World, the incredible West Baden Springs Hotel.

Toronto's famed entrepreneur  Ed Mirvish had a big sign on his huge bargain store Honest Ed's saying: "There ain't no place like this place anyplace."  This certainly applies to the mammoth West Baden Springs Hotel, famous for its 200 foot dome, which was the largest unsupported dome in the United States until the construction of the Coliseum in Charlotte, NC, in 1955.  The 6-storey hotel, built to replace a prior and much more modest hotel that burned down in 1901, was constructed in an amazing 270 days and reopened to the public in September 1902, with the grand dedication the following August.

Located near a railway line, the hotel was convenient for people attending major events such as the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500.  Major improvements were made between 1917 and 1919, including the laying of the magnificent Italian tile mosaic floor in the atrium. 

The hotel offered many amenities typical of period resorts, including a sauna room, mineral baths, bowling, golfing and a beautiful indoor swimming pool.  A curious feature that survived the original hotel was a covered, double deck bicycle track that was 540 m in length, the longest in the country.  The upper floor was used for cycling until 4 pm, when chairs were put out and it became a sort of promenade deck.  The lower deck was used for pony cart rides.  The infield features tennis courts and other athletic facilities.  It was eventually demolished by a tornado in the 1920s, giving the owner, who did not want to pay to have it torn down and was letting it deteriorate prior, a big insurance settlement!

Current view of the site of the bicycle track

the hotel attracted a celebrity clientele.  Boxers John L. Sullivan and James Corbett trained there.  Other notables included New York Governor Al Smith, "Diamond Jim" Brady, Al Capone (and bodyguards) and General John Pershing.  It was a busy place in the 1920s but subsequently business fell off as the Great Depression in 1929 changed everyone's travel plans.  

Hotel lobby area, registration on the right
The owner did not want it turned into a speakeasy or gambling location (ironically as he had specialized in illegal gambling prior to buying the place) so in 1932 it was closed.  Two years later it was donated to the Jesuits, who removed most of the luxury interior features and dumped concrete into the mineral spring pools.  You still smell the sulphur from the underground springs.   It was a seminary until 1963, when declining enrollment and high maintenance costs forced its closure again.

1n 1966 it was reopened as an annex to a business school in the area and operated until 1983.  It was declared a National Historic Landmark but the unoccupied building was rapidly deteriorating and one of the walls collapsed in 1991 and tours were stopped as the building was declared unsafe.  Efforts were made to stabilize the historic structure, at considerable expense, by Indiana philanthropists.

There is much additional history, including a  2003 plan by Donald Trump to operate a casino in the building which was thwarted by his bankruptcy at the time, but eventually the wealthy Indiana philanthropist who had donated a great deal of money to the upkeep of the building (some $35 million!), ended up taking it over along with the nearby French Lick Resort and renovating both.

The comfortable library in the hotel

Renovations, undertaken at a cost for $100 million, took place from 2003 until 2006.  The hotel has a reduced number of rooms --243--but far higher level of luxury, far surpassing its original version.  The grounds have been very nicely restored as well.

We had a beautiful room, looking into the atrium.  The hotel is not inexpensive but it is worthwhile to spend a night in one of the America's most spectacular hotels.

Did Al Capone come here to get his shoes shined?

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