WEST BADEN — By the time I lowered myself into the pungent, steamy, and purportedly curative mineral bath at the West Baden Springs Hotel, I had learned what guests have been discovering since the 1880s: Taking the waters is only a fraction of the attraction.
Other marvels of this historic grand hotel, part of the French Lick Resort, include a freestanding domed atrium, 100 feet high and 200 feet in diameter, to rival the cathedrals of Europe; plush guest rooms encircling this atrium, with balconies that open with French doors onto its vast, serene space; and everywhere, tile mosaics on floors and walls that delight the eye, including earth-tone arabesques under the dome and jet-black fleurs-de-lis in the oversize indoor pool. Restaurants, shops, and a world-class spa beckon from the rim, and throughout the 243-room hotel, historic photos, artifacts, and antique and restoration furniture beguile West Baden Springs’ day visitors as well as hotel guests who have golfed, hiked, or gambled the day away.
My husband, Bob, and I came first in December last year, splurging on a break from pre-holiday frenetics and our routines in a bustling Indiana town about an hour away.
We knew the hotel was a restored phenomenon that had opened to raves in 2007, but we had not seen it since the late 1990s, in the early stages of its rescue by the Indiana Landmarks group (with major financing from Indiana’s wealthy Cook family). On that visit, we had found the atrium a gaping shell, crumbling inside and out, with mildew in the air and most parts closed to those without a hard hat. It seemed unlikely then that anyone would have the will, much less the means, to do justice to West Baden’s eminent past and also give it a viable future.
But this past winter, even before we checked in, we could see the place had been transformed, as advertised, with a spare-no-expense restoration. Loving attention had refurbished every charming detail outside — from the Victorian entrance gate and broad brick drive to the formal gardens, gazebos, and lawns, to the deep veranda and the four bannered turrets that stand guard around the dome.
We were wowed entering the lavish atrium, which was then graced by a 30-foot-tall Christmas tree and herald-angel primitives, and for hours continued to be awed by the old hotel’s renewal — one so thorough it had us anticipating top-hatted tycoons and bejeweled heiresses in the gently curving halls.
Such characters were the clientele whose rich tastes drove entrepreneur Lee Sinclair to build the hotel of his dreams in 1902, following a fire that had destroyed his popular resort. That enterprise had sported a casino and opera house alongside a stately inn and mineral spa, and proved to Sinclair there was an appetite for the high life among Midwestern swells, not to mention more cosmopolitan travelers. He wasted no time rebuilding, opening the spectacular dome and palatial inn just one year after the blaze and launching the three most glittering decades of the hotel’s history, an era peopled by entertainers (vaudeville’s Eva Tanguay), gangsters (Al Capone), titans of industry (”Diamond Jim” Brady), politicians (Al Smith), and sports stars (boxer John L. Sullivan).
Several railway lines served the hotel and French Lick Springs, its rival destination less than a mile away. During the heyday, West Baden Springs hosted at least two baseball teams for spring training, the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds. According to “West Baden Springs: The Legacy of Dreams,” by Chris Bundy, during the 1920s, well-heeled Europeans considered a stay in the Springs Valley an essential part of an American excursion.
Wealthy patrons are still the hotel’s target customers. But that just makes the occasional splurge all that much more fun for thinner-walleted guests. And for travelers driving in the Midwest, this National Historic Landmark, ranked by Condé Nast reviewers among the world’s “Best Places to Stay,” is a sophisticated indulgence about two hours off Interstate 70.
Looking to be spoiled a bit, Bob and I, as well as friends who came along on another visit, felt ourselves coddled, along with our dogs (welcomed in consideration of a $75 fee). While the furnishings bespeak an earlier era, the accommodations embrace modernity, with a top-notch array of comforts, thoughtful openness and lighting, and electronic amenities including Wi-Fi. Bathrooms feature a clear-glass walk-in shower in addition to a long tub, and a house phone. Even in the historic atrium, an LED-lighted finial at the apex cycles almost imperceptibly through a spectrum of jewel colors throughout the night.
Though our room was so posh, there were many enticements to leave it.
At a wine-tasting one evening under the dome, local vineyards shone. An intimate game room, outfitted for billiards, chess, checkers, and more, beckoned us to play after we’d dined like royalty (one of the three restaurants featured royal prices, as well). A low-key bar down the hall gleamed, promising a nightcap.
And of course, there was the spa. Those mineral springs that drew thousands of guests in the 19th century are still flowing. I opted for an aromatic, neck-deep bath — a 30-minute vacation within a vacation — but the waters vie with many other pleasures available for purchase in the crystalline spa wing. Along with massages, facials, body wraps, mani-pedi pampering, and a hair salon, the hotel boasts a natatorium to inspire your inner mermaid. Those fleur-de-lis mosaic tiles are right at home amid stone columns and potted palms flanking the 26-yard-long pool and a bubbling hot tub. Adjacent, on the other side of a retractable wall, are an oblong outdoor pool and wide stone deck for sunning.
A bicycle and pedestrian path leads to the French Lick Springs Hotel — a historic site in its own right, and now West Baden Springs’ sister property — and its casino, a source of income for the entire resort. There are rougher trails for mountain biking, and others for hikers and horseback riders (stables serve both hotels, as do three golf courses). We plied several, with our pets off-leash at times.
Though the hotel revels in the richest slices of its history, it makes no secret of its sad, more recent decline. Tour guides attribute the toughest blow to the Great Depression, although the rise of the automobile and the emergence of Florida as a more exotic destination also played a part. After Sinclair’s successor, Ed Ballard, closed the hotel in 1932, a series of owners — including the Society of Jesus and a private college — presided over its diminishment during the next five decades. Bankruptcy ensued, and in 1989, the property was closed to the public.
That travesty, and locally-circulated photos of the shocking deterioration within and outside the historic dome, alarmed Indiana preservationists and set events in motion that drew the attention of the philanthropic Cooks. The rescue began in the mid-’90s, and by 2004, the family and its companies had spent some $35 million to bring the place back. Eventually, restoration and construction at the two-hotel resort topped out at $560 million.
Other points of interest in the area include the Indiana Railway Museum in French Lick; an amusement park and Indiana’s largest water park, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari; and in winter, Paoli Peaks ski center in nearby Paoli. And New Englanders, especially mindful of the Larry Bird hometown connection to French Lick and West Baden, should check out 33 Brick Street, a restaurant decorated with authentic Bird memorabilia that celebrates his mighty run with the Boston Celtics.