The West Baden Springs Hotel is a historic landmark hotel in the town of West Baden Springs in Orange County, Indiana, USA, known for its vast domed atrium. It is currently part of the French Lick Resort Casino complex. Prior to the completion of the Houston Astrodome in 1965, the building had the largest free-spanning dome in the United States and was the largest in the world from 1902-1913. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, became a National Historic Landmark in 1987 and is a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
In 1778, George Rogers Clark is thought to have discovered the area’s mineral springs and salt licks. The region’s reputation as a mineral springs resort area began with the building of the first French Lick Springs Hotel in 1832.West Baden
In 1852, John Lane built a hotel on a site near the town of Mile Lick that he named the Mile Lick Inn. The town was renamed West Baden in 1855, so Lane changed the hotel name to the West Baden Inn. In 1887, the Monon railroad built an extension to take guests to the springs and the hotel. By the late 1800′s, seven railroads brought guests from all over the country to the Springs Valley for relaxation and the alleged curative powers of the mineral water.
A group that included Lee Wiley Sinclair from Salem, Indiana acquired controlling interest in the hotel in 1888. Sinclair soon became sole owner and transformed it into a sophisticated resort, including an opera house, a casino and a two-deck, covered, one-third-mile oval bicycle and pony track. A lighted baseball diamond in the center of the track became the spring training grounds for several major league teams including the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. Fire destroyed the entire hotel building in less than two hours in June, 1901; however, no guests were injured. Owner Lee Sinclair declared that the new hotel would be fireproof and would have the world’s largest dome. Most professionals in the architectural community considered it impossible, but unknown West Virginia architect Harrison Albright completed the new West Baden Springs Hotel on time.
The new structure opened in September, 1902 and if the advertisements and articles about the new hotel were true, the facility deserved being called the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was claimed that the resort’s mineral baths and drinking waters could cure everything from sterility to senility. The hotel’s amenities included two golf courses, billiards, bowling, baseball, swimming, horseback riding, bicycling and hiking on scenic trails, movies and nightly theatre. On-site personal services included a stock brokerage, banking and a barbershop. Birds flew freely in the 200-foot-diameter atrium, and an enormous fireplace burned 14-foot logs to take the chill off on cool evenings.
Paul Dresser is rumored to have composed Indiana’s state song “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” at the hotel. Boxers John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett trained there. Al Capone was a frequent guest as was Diamond Jim Brady. Politicans included Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson of Chicago and New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. Professional baseball teams even held their spring training at the resort.`
A massive renovation effort was begun in 1913, but Sinclair died in 1916. His daughter and her husband took over the hotel’s operation and restoration. Overextended by the refurbishment, Lillian Sinclair sold the property to Ed Ballard for $1 million in 1923. Ballard, who began his career as a bowling alley worker in the hotel, made a fortune by operating a flourishing, albeit illegal gambling business in the Springs Valley. Ballard also owned several nationally recognized touring circuses. The rise of the automobile and resorts in Florida drew business away from the West Baden Springs Hotel, but Ballard aggressively promoted the hotel to conventioneers and trade exhibitions. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 spelled the end of the hotel. As word of the plummeting market spread, people gathered in the brokerage firm’s offices at the hotel, which emptied of guests almost overnight. Ballard closed the hotel in June, 1932 and sold it to the Jesuits for one dollar in 1934.
The Jesuits removed many of the building’s elegant appointments when they transformed the hotel into a seminary. The four Moorish towers were dismantled when they fell into disrepair. Known as West Baden College, the seminary operated until June, 1964 when declining enrollment forced the Jesuits to close the facility.
In 1966, the Jesuits sold the property to a Michigan couple who in turn donated it to Northwood Institute, a private college, which operated a business management school on the property until 1983.
Vacant after 1983, the building slipped into extreme decay, resulting in the collapse of a good portion of the west wall in 1991. In 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the hotel as one of America’s most endangered places. Bill Cook, a Bloomington, Indiana, entrepreneur and billionaire, financed a partial restoration of the property by the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana which assumed ownership in 1996. It was marketed nationally for almost ten years without a buyer and over 400,000 visitors toured the hotel.
French Lick Resort
In 2006, title was transferred to a subsidiary of Bill Cook’s Cook Group to become a part of the French Lick Resort Casino development. In May 2007, the building began hosting guests as a hotel in 246 luxury rooms for the first time since 1932.
- Frenchlick.com: WBSH
- Cookgroup.com: WBSH
- Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana: WBSH
- Jadecat.com: WBSH
- National Historic Landmark Listing
- HABS photos and data
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