A Spa Town Is Reborn After Decades of Decline

By Linda Marx

For years, after the season ended in Palm Beach, many of the people who wintered on the island would go home, clean their warm-weather clothing, then gather in the valley of French Lick, Ind.  They would dip and drink the therapeutic “Pluto Water” from the mineral springs, gamble in the ornate casinos, walk through the elegant gardens, enjoy fine music and theatre and socialize with high-profile friends. 

Names like Astor, Ford and Phipps took the waters with Lana Turner, Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, Groucho Marx, Eddie Rickenbacker, Adlai Stevenson and seven U.S. presidents, including regular guest Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Many came to wallow in the beauty of southern Indiana’s rolling hills while treating their arthritis, rheumatism and constipation.

They stayed in either the French Lick Springs Resort or about a mile down the road at the West Baden Springs Hotel.  Each large destination hotel was established by well-traveled local entrepreneurs who spent a fortune back in the 19th century to create luxury palaces and grounds emulating those of the great spa towns of Europe, like Baden-Baden and Weisbaden, Germany; Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, and Montecatini, Italy. 

Together with 30 illegal casinos – 13 at the height of Prohibition – the fancy hotels, restaurants and entertainment complexes gave this small but hopping town the title of “Sin City.”  It was a mecca for a variety of wealthy travelers who arrived on private rail cars and Pullman trains, and stayed for a month or more. 

Something that is one-of-a-kind and modern-day luxurious, take the free trolley to the West Baden Springs hotel, originally called the Mile Lick Inn until owner Dr. John Lane changed the name.  Later, entrepreneur Lee W. Sinclair bought the hotel, which offered an opera house, golf courses, a church, garden, conservatory, ball field and double-decker pony and bicycle track.  Working with his daughter, Sinclair added more truffles than a guest could ever fully appreciate in one visit. 

In fact, the hotel became known as the “eight wonder of the world” after the family built the free-span domed atrium, which has been restored, and which had its grand reopening in June with a gala dinner featuring Hoosier-born rock musician John Mellencamp.  Two hundred feet wide, with 600 feet of inner circumference – the largest in the world for 60 years until Houston’s Astrodome was completed in 1965 – this is te first sight we saw as we arrived on the grounds the week of the gala.

The vast openness and beauty of the atrium dome with its clerestory windows creating a light show with the dozens of intimate sitting vignettes below is worth a tour.  Done beautifully in wood, stained glass and colorful historic mosaics, the expansive room was recreated with original finishes and preserved materials. 

The 246 hotel rooms, suites and Presidential Suite, rising in circular tiers, have interior balconies that open onto the 34,834-square-foot atrium with views of the dome and a huge Rookwood Pottery Art Nouveau fireplace that burns logs the size of mountain lions. 

The dome also has chromatherapy-inspired lighting at night that changes from red to blue to green to yellow.  It consists of 12 million marble mosaics and sits on 24 ribs of steel, each weighing 4 1/2 tons.  The 10,000 square feet of glass was installed in seven days, according to the hotel tour. 
Legal casino a first for resort town
In 1996, thanks to an anonymous contribution of $250,000, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana bought the West Baden Springs hotel.  Later that year, Bloomington, Ind.-based philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook, who own a company that makes medical devices, and are worth an estimated $3.2 billion, made a substantial donation to partially restore both hotels, their grounds, the golf courses and mineral spring houses. 

French Lick Springs had functioned as a dottering hotel off and on for many years, but West Baden Springs was a Jesuit College and Northwood University before it closed and boarded up, making the area around it look like a war zone. 

In 2005, after unsuccessful bids by Donald Trump, and basketball great Larry Bird, who is a French Lick native, CFC Inc., a Cook Group company, and his partner, Lauth Property Group, formed a joint venture to buy the West Baden Springs and the French Lick Springs hotels for $382 million.  Their plan to construct a casino on a small, manmade waterway – a riverboat in a moat attached by walkways to the restored French Lick Resort & Casino – won the approvals necessary to make it the 11th casino in Indiana.  And for the 3,000 current residents of French Lick, it is the first legal gaming establishment in the town’s history. 

A few months ago, Cook bought out Lauth, and is now the sole owner of both pet-friendly, Beaux-Arts hotels and the chandelier-filled casino, which offers 1,200 slots, 32 gaming tables (blackjack, roulette and craps), a 12-table poker room and several restaurants, including a great coffee shop, Las Vegas-style. 

Bill Cook, who keeps a boat in Fort Lauderdale, is also a theatrical producer.  He is bringing his Tony – and Emmy – award winning show Blast to the Kravis Center in W. Palm Beach this month. 

-Linda Marx

French Lick Springs and Resort Casino
8670 State Road 56
French Lick, IN 47432
Rooms: $129 to $1,800 a night.
Web site: www.frenchlick.com

West Baden Springs Hotel
8538 West Baden Ave.
West Baden Springs, IN 47469
Rooms: $180 to $5,000 a night.
Web site: www.westbadenresort.com
Telephone: (888) MY HIDEAWAY or (812) 936-9300 for either hotel.


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