The original hotel on this southern Indiana site was built in 1855. In 1888 a Mr. Lee Sinclair bought the hotel, which burned in 1901. In a feat claimed at the time to have been impossible, Sinclair built a brand new edifice in less than a year. Dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by contemporary press, the magnificent circular atrium had a huge domed roof, the largest in the world. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, trails, two golf courses among other amenities, the hotel soon became the playground of the rich, famous, and infamous. All partook of the legendary Sprudel mineral water that allegedly cured most ills.
The first three decades of the 20th century are considered the early heyday of the facility. Well known politicians from all over the country came to rest and relax. Early industrial tycoons, including the Studebaker family of automotive fame made regular trips to West Baden. Gangsters such as Al Capone and “Diamond Jim” Brady were guests on several occasions. The Sinclair family sold the hotel to Ed Ballard in 1923. Ballard was soon faced with stiff competition from burgeoning Florida resort developments coupled with advent of an automobile for every family.
The stock market crash of 1929 was witnessed by many at the West Baden Hotel’s brokerage office. Business died practically overnight. Ballard closed the hotel in 1932 and sold the facility to the Jesuits for the sum of one dollar in 1934. The Jesuits stripped many of the fancy architectural features from the inside of the edifice, and removed the four towers in lieu of maintaining them. The Jesuits operated a seminary in the building until 1964. In 1966 the Jesuits sold the building to a Michigan couple who in turn donated the property Northwood Institute, a private Michigan based college. Northwood operated a satellite campus at West Baden until 1983.
After Northwood sold the property in 1985, the magnificent old landmark fell on very rough times. Tied up in a California bankruptcy court, the West Baden Springs suffered a partial structural collapse and the unkempt grounds became overgrown. Vacancy and abandonment almost caused the total destruction of the hotel. A series of events, including anonymous contributions, eventually led to the acquisition of the property by the Indiana Landmarks group. The group received permission from the court to make emergency stabilization and repairs.
In 1996 the Cook Group of Bloomington, Indiana began restoration. Ultimately the Cook Group and Bill and Gayle Cook personally put over $32 million in the project from 1996 to 1999. The exterior was restored including the return of the Moorish design towers. The grounds were brought back to their original grandeur. The interior domed atrium was also restored to its original state. All this work was designed to make the property attractive to a buyer.
Ultimately what saved the West Baden Springs Hotel was the issuance of a gambling license. The nearby French Lick Resort, also needing restoration, was granted a license in 2005 to operate a casino on their property. Cook and Lauth Property Group now owned both hotels and the casino. In 2007 the West Baden Springs Hotel opened once again for hotel guests for the first time since 1932. The story of the West Baden Hotel now continues.
West Baden Springs Hotel