After a day of winding along Indiana’s wooded roads, I excitedly spy the yellow towers and red six-story dome of West Baden Springs Hotel. It rises majestically above bare trees, beckoning travelers with grandeur rarely seen in this century. I eagerly step inside, tip my head back and slowly spin. What was once dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” spans across an elegant one-acre atrium. Other visitors pause and do the same, the dome triggering a hushed effect usually reserved for cathedrals.
I dreamily picture the swirl of skirts, a swish of satin and the fine-cut suits of American aristocracy.
“People are always wowed by the atrium,” says Sandi Woodward, a program director for Indiana Landmarks, which leads daily tours. “It’s a stop-in-your-tracks moment.”
The nonprofit foundation helped rescue and restore West Baden Springs Hotel, which debuted with great fanfare in 1902. America’s high society was in its prime, fueled by fortunes made in a booming country. The upper class would winter in places such as the French Riviera, then welcome spring in this scenic corner of Indiana, also home to the posh French Lick Springs Hotel, staying for weeks — even months — at a time.
It was America’s Downton Abbey era — a few glittering decades of pomp and privilege before the Depression changed everything.
Cures and casinos
Indiana Landmarks helps visitors shake this era into perspective with historic tours of the two glittering hotels in the tandem towns of French Lick and West Baden. Sitting only a mile apart, they are now operated together as French Lick Resort.
“In the early 20th century, you really had no middle class,” Woodward says. There was a working class and families with money — Vanderbilts, Studebakers, DuPonts. They were the kind who traveled first class on the Titanic and could spend their social seasons anywhere in the world.
The towns’ reputation for resorts gained momentum in the mid-1800s when people could ride the train to “take the waters,” tapping the 10 natural mineral springs that burbled throughout Springs Valley. French Lick had been named for early French trappers and salty mineral deposits popular with wildlife.
By the 1850s, neighboring Mile Lick was renamed West Baden Springs after Germany’s famous spring.
“They had a list of over 50 ailments [the mineral waters] supposedly cured,” Woodward says. Some of the country’s other grand resorts, such as the Greenbrier in West Virginia and Virginia’s the Homestead, similarly touted healing waters that could cure everything from infertility to senility.
When fire destroyed the West Baden Springs Hotel in 1902, owner Lee Sinclair audaciously planned a circular hotel crowned by world’s largest dome. He knew he’d have to wow an increasingly sophisticated upper class. He later added an arched entrance gate that boldly called West Baden Springs “The Carlsbad of America.”
On-staff physicians dispensed familiar advice: Drink more water and get exercise. Their “cure” could include walking, horseback rides, tennis, baseball, swimming, croquet, bowling and bicycling. There was also an opera house and up to 13 casinos that lined the mile between West Baden and French Lick’s big resorts.
As Carl Cook, who helped restore the resort, put it, “This was Las Vegas before Las Vegas existed,” Woodward says. “And that essentially was true.”
The heydays of West Baden Springs Hotel lasted through the 1929 financial crash when its clientele lost their fortunes. It hung on only three more years before selling to Jesuits for $1. French Lick Springs Hotel remained afloat but diminished.
It helped that it still sold its bottled Pluto Water, a laxative available for years on pharmacy shelves.
West Baden Springs lost its glamour over the decades as Jesuits made it simpler and age took its toll on the building. It eventually became a private college for two decades and hosted a few Larry Bird basketball camps inside the domed atrium. Bird, a beloved Boston Celtics player, is still the hometown hero, “the hick from French Lick.”
By the mid-1990s, West Baden Springs was in critical condition. Historic Landmarks and private investors worked together to take ownership and begin repairs.
Part of the $382 million investment was renovating French Lick Springs Hotel in 2006 and reopening a casino there to help fund restoration of both properties, which together comprise more than 680 guest rooms and suites. West Baden Springs Hotel opened its doors in 2007, 75 years since the last guests checked out.
“The rescue of West Baden is of national importance. It speaks to the time, the architecture and the builders in the early century,” says Woodward. “It’s something everyone should see at least once.”
Modern vacationers can enjoy many of the same pursuits from a century ago: golf on Donald Ross and Pete Dye golf courses, trail rides, two spas that include mineral baths, swimming, children’s programs and a 20-mile scenic train ride into the Hoosier National Forest. Non-guests also are welcome to take historic tours or a self-guided peek at the hotels.
Riches for everyone
I enjoy wandering French Lick Spring’s lobby, which glitters with gilded trim and faux marble columns. Lush classical paintings draw your eyes to the ceilings. Its casino flashes with enticements, but I find myself more drawn to portraits of famous guests such as Howard Hughes, Louie Armstrong and Bob Hope.
After dining at a casual grill intriguingly built around the French Lick Springs’ decommissioned power plant switches, I return to the quieter vibe of West Baden. As I arrive, a deer stops to stare at me in the gauzy light of a late-winter evening. On a warmer night, I wouldn’t hesitate to settle into a rocking chair on the generous, gracious front porch.
Inside, a cozy library, a peacefully deserted pool, and the atrium’s fireplace decorated with a gnome and forest all tempt me to stay and linger.
But where I really want to be is up on the sixth floor, sitting on the balcony, and savoring a dessert — an appropriately dome-shaped chocolate-covered cake and mousse.
I savor it slowly, watching the illuminated pinnacle of the dome change color from yellow to blue to purple.
I can’t help but yearn for fancy dresses gliding across the mosaic below rather than two teen girls in T-shirts and sweats. But when they, too, stop to gape happily at their surroundings, a thought hits home.
While the era of satin, servants and social seasons has faded away, there is something just as luminous about the middle class enjoying a few days of feeling rather rich.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a St. Cloud-based travel writer and author of “Day Trips From the Twin Cities.”