It’s surely not a stretch for me to say that most people imagine that all the stunning major hotels in the US are in popular tourist destinations. But what if one hotel – hotel that has been called the 8th wonder of the world—an architectural marvel with nearly 250 exquisitely appointed suites, a world-class spa, 45 holes of championship golf, and an atrium dome that was once the largest in the world—is in a town called French Lick, Indiana?.

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French Lick, IN

Herds of deer and buffalo once frequented a salt lick in what is now the Hoosier National Forest as they traveled along the Buffalo Trace in southern Indiana. Following the arrival of French traders and settlers in the vicinity, the site became known as French Lick. The young state of Indiana considered mining the salt for early pioneers to use in preserving meat, but when it was determined that the saline content was insufficient, the property was offered for sale. William A. Bowles, a local physician, purchased the land that included a mineral spring and built a small inn, which opened in 1845 as the French Lick Springs Hotel. It quickly became a popular health spa launching the area as a midwestern holiday destination.

History of the West Baden Springs Hotel

William Bowles barely had time to operate his new business, as he volunteered to serve in the Mexican-American War a year after it opened. To ensure the enterprise remained prosperous in his absence, Bowles leased the retreat to another physician, John A. Lane, for a period of 5 years. The deal stipulated that Lane would earn a cut of the revenue as well as a large tract of undeveloped land, should he make French Lick Springs Hotel profitable.

When Bowles resumed control over the resort, he was thoroughly impressed at Lane’s accomplishment. Dr. Bowles offered Dr. Lane the purchase of some of his land, and Lane settled on a marshy area known as “Mile Lick” just one mile away from French Lick Springs Hotel. Confused, as the area routinely flooded, Bowles allowed the transfer. But Lane had envisioned the space as a suitable location for another resort destination, as he knew it contained its own hidden mineral spring. Lane began constructing his very own resort hotel, debuting the “Mile Lick Inn” a year later—launching an intense rivalry between the two locations that would last for decades.

By 1855, the local residents decided to name their village “West Baden” after a similar spa town in Germany called “Wiesbaden.” Lane, in turn, renamed Mile Lick Inn as “West Baden Springs Hotel.” He ran it for the next 28 years, before selling in 1883 to a group of investors led by Amos and John Stout, who spent thousands of dollars improving the Hotel, expanding the site exponentially. Their plan to renovate the location could not have come at a better time. In 1887, a wave of new tourist traffic arrived in the area when the Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville Railway established an extension of its line to the area. The two hotels quickly rose in national prominence, attracting guests from all over the world. The biggest draw was the mineral springs, which many thought had medicinal qualities. The two hotels marketed their respective minerals springs as their main attractions, going as far as to bottle it for distribution.

Among the people who arrived in the area at the time was a man named Lee Wiley Sinclair. Impressed with the business that West Baden Springs Hotel had gained as a result of the railway, he plotted to buy the location. Forming an investment company, he purchased the hotel and 667 acres of nearby land for a sum of $23,000 in 1888. He invested significantly into the facility’s development, constructing a couple hundred new guest rooms, a massive bicycle track, and an official bottling plant for the sale of the water. The bicycle track was the world’s largest, and featured a baseball diamond in its center, at a time when the sport was becoming immensely popular. Word of the facility soon reached several of the new professional baseball —who held training sessions at the resort. By the end of the century, several teams — including the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs, and Pittsburgh Pirates — had hosted their spring training regimens at the West Baden Springs Hotel.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 1901 when an overnight fire caused the structure to burn to the ground in a matter of hours. But Sinclair turned the moment into an opportunity. He would rebuild the hotel of his dreams. He immediately began renovating, hiring architect Harrison Albright to design a new hotel, one that would lay the rooms out in a circular rotunda. Sinclair planned to cap the structure with an awe-inspiring fireproof dome, tapping bridge engineer Oliver Westcott to plan it, and a 500-man crew that worked six days a week to build it. When the dome was finally finished, it spanned 200 feet across and more than 100 feet high – at the time, it was the largest dome in the world.

Pictured: West Baden Springs Hotel as it appeared in Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company’s Book of the Royal Blue, April 1909.

Some of the finest amenities of the day were featured, including a casino, a billiard hall, and a bowling alley. A spacious theater hosted nightly entertainment that ranged from operas to silent movies. A bank and a brokerage firm provided financial services to the resort’s clientele, which included the era’s rich and famous. The atrium’s massive fireplace could accommodate logs as large as 14 feet. The space had palm trees, in which live birds would roost year after year. Outside, there were two golf courses and miles of hiking trails.

In 1916, Sinclair handed over the hotel to his daughter, Lillian Rexford, and his son-in-law, Charles. Under their watch, the resort underwent another round of renovations before the hotel operated as a makeshift military hospital for soldiers wounded while fighting in the trenches of World War I. The Rexford’s divorced four years after the resort re-opened in 1919. Lillian then sold it to Edward Ballard, who had helped the couple finance their construction work. Ballard managed the West Baden Springs Hotel throughout the Roaring Twenties, but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 thoroughly decimated the business. Ballard closed it down in 1932 and attempted to sell it, but there were no buyers to be found. He decided to donate the entire facility to a Jesuit organization called the “Society of Jesus.” The Jesuits used West Baden Springs Hotel as a seminary until 1966 when they sold it to a private university called Northwood Institute, which was housed in the facility through the early 1980s.

A group called Minnesota Investment Partners purchased the entire location for $500,000 in the mid-1990s and quickly began renovating the resort, but it eventually backed out of the project in just a couple of years. Eventually, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana stepped in to buy the location, partnering with the Cook Group to restore it. Together, the two entities initiated a massive multi-million-dollar renovation that brought West Baden Springs Hotel back to its former glory. In 2006, the Cook Group became the sole owner, joining the resort together with its longtime rival — the French Lick Springs Hotel — to form the new French Lick Resort. Now a major leisure and business destination in Indiana once again, the historic resort hotel has received numerous accolades for its world-class service, is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Photo by: Sarah Poole

Visiting the West Baden Springs Hotel

The atrium of the West Baden Springs Hotel was the largest domed area in the world all the way up until the Astrodome was built in 1964. Below it is a mosaic terrazzo floor composed of two million one-inch marble tiles. The French Lick Resort complex now gets to boast two AAA Four-Diamond nationally historic hotels, three challenging golf courses, two rejuvenating spas, impressive meeting venues, and a casino, rated one of the top casinos outside of Vegas. The French Lick Resort is located about 60 minutes from Louisville, Kentucky, and 2 hours south of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Want more great destinations? Continue exploring unique overnight destinations with a stay at the Lizzie Borden Bead & Breakfast, or check out the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Co.


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