Restoring the Eighth Wonder of the World

By Traditional Building
Published in "Traditional Building" magazine July/August 2001

As we know, well-maintained buildings can endure for decades.  Conversely, even the most stable building will eventually fall into deep disrepair with neglect.  Here’s a story with a happy ending:  A preservation organization teamed up with a corporate philanthropist to restore a major landmark hotel to its original grandeur.

The magnificent 1902 Harrison Albright-designed West Baden Springs Hotel in Orange County, Ind., was notable first and foremost for its six-story atrium – the largest clear-span dome in the world (until the Astrodome was built in 1965).  Other features that drew the rich and famous were a copious 700 bedrooms, natural mineral springs used for bathing and drinking, grounds that hosted professional baseball teams’ spring training, golf, horseback riding, bowling, billiards, swimming, and hiking.  The hotel also offered nightly theater, a bank, shops, a barber shop and beauty salon.

With the 1929 stock market crash, the luxury hotel fell on hard times.  Over the next five decades ownership changed several times, but the most destructive period was from 1983 to 1996 when an owner left the buildings idle and unattended – so much so that a portion of the outermost ring of rooms in this concentric-circle layout had collapsed.

Relief came in 1996 when Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana stepped up and purchased the property.  The preservation organization enlisted the support and expertise of Bill and Gayle Cook, Southern Indiana industrialist/philanthropists with a preservation bent.  Together, the two organizations joined forces to partially renovate the hotel (a $35-million project value) with the hope of selling it to a buyer who would complete the restoration and put the splendid facility to new use.

Careful attention was paid to all aspects of the renovation, by architects, engineers, contractors, and landscapers to bring the hotel back, as closely as possible, to its original state.  Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS) of New Berlin, Wisc., was commissioned to restore the decorated surfaces in the main public areas on the hotel’s first floor.

Most of the original decoration throughout the hotel had been painted out, so the CSS team’s first task was to conduct an investigation into the original decorative scheme.  The lobby, the atrium under the revolutionary 250-ft.-dia. freespan dome, and the elaborate dining room were areas addressed by the Studio.

Investigation began in the six-story atrium.  A thorough study of the space, past experience, and historic photographs, helped the Studio determine which where decoration, such as stenciling, gilding, and glazing had originally been applied.  In these areas, layers of paint were carefully removed to expose the original decorated paint layer.  Design elements were then traced, and the types, colors, and applications of paint, glaze, and metal leaf were analyzed.

A significant portion of the atrium’s decoration consisted of decorative bands that flanked the room’s 24 columns.  This decorative border was replicated on canvas (as a cost-saving measure), but otherwise looked just as the originals had been a brown stencil background and a polychrome glazing technique that included hand-wiped highlights.  The size of the atrium made this aspect of the restoration no small task:  CSS artists reproduced three miles of hand-painted canvas!  Other decorative work in the atrium included trompe l’oeil and figural work and repainting the ornamental-plaster elements, including capitals, plinths, and friezes.  The enormous center rosette was restored, and its pendant was flash-gilded with two tones of bronze powder.

Because of severely water damaged plaster, the surfaces of the lobby and dining room both had, unfortunately, been completely lost before the arrival of the CSS team.  This left only historic photographs and articles from which to glean information about their original appearance.

For the entry lobby, which also is a dramatic circular space, artists developed a decorative scheme based on archival photographs.  They extrapolated a likely palette from the period to complement the colors of the atrium.  Newly created stencils were applied, along with hand-highlighting.

Very little historic information was available regarding the dining room, so artists were asked to interpret the room in a decorative scheme appropriate to the period and to the rest of the building.  Large stencil patterns were created for the ceiling, and two-tone gold accents were applied to the ornamental plaster.  Stenciling was added to the barber shop ceiling – a new surface that concealed structural-steel reinforcements.  Here, artists took cues from extant tile, original to the space.

The restoration of the West Baden Springs Hotel remains a work-in-progress.  Other areas of the property require additional work, as do elements of the elaborate landscaping.  But a visit to the site explains its century-old nickname “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

For complete contact information on Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc., see the Source List beginning on page 90.  Cook Group can be contacted through its website at  Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana’s website is or call (800) 450-4534 for more information.  West Baden Springs National Historic Landmark offers tours year-round.

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