15 May 2008

West Baden

I can't mention French Lick without mentioning her more sophisticated sister just to the north, West Baden. Originally "Mile Lick," the town was renamed after the famed springs of Wiesbaden, Germany by the first proprietor of a resort here in 1855.
In the late 19th century the hotel added such ammenities as an opera house, a pony and bicycle track, a baseball field, and of course a casino.
In 1901, the hotel burned to the ground.

Lee Sinclair, owner of the resort, rebuilt the hotel in the style of the grandest hotels of Europe, built of non-flammable materials of course, with the largest dome in the world (until the Astrodome was built in 1965.) The construction was completed in a staggering 11 months, a fact that would become apparent in the early 21st century as restoration work began after decades of neglect. The beautiful mosaic tile floor was laid atop shifty dirt, causing the floor to become uneven throughout the years, ruining the original tile work.

In the early 20th century, the Chicago White Sox, Cubs, and the Cincinnati Reds all held spring training in West Baden. Other famous visitors included Al Capone and others looking for a "quiet place to be" within an easy day's train ride from Chicago.
In 1916, Sinclair died, leaving the hotel to his daughter and her husband. The building became an Army Hospital during WWI, when Lillian Sinclair fell in love with an officer she met there, divorcing her husband and selling the hotel to a local casino manager named Ed Ballard.

After the stock market crash in 1929, Ballard continued to operate the hotel and provide jobs to the local residents, even though the number of guests dwindled to almost nil. He managed to keep the hotel open until 1932, when he finally sold it to the Jesuits for one dollar.

The Jesuits stripped the building of its grandeur and turned it into a seminary for the next thirty years. After this period, it became a campus of the Northwood Institute (now known as Northwood University) until 1983. The building remained abandoned and neglected for the next fifteen years or so. I remember visiting in the late 1980's when it was terribly dilapidated. The floor was wavy, water damage buckled the plaster around the exterior walls of the dome. A few years later, one of the exterior walls collapsed from the freezing and thawing cycle of the Southern Indiana winter.

In 1996, restoration began on the building thanks in part to the Cook family. By 1998 the original four towers were replicated and put into place via helicopter. Today thanks to the casino development next door in French Lick, the West Baden Springs Hotel has returned to its grandeur. I've heard it on good authority (from a bartender) that Mrs. Cook has seen to it herself that West Baden will never be home to a casino of any sort, but will continue to be the sophisticated neighbor of the gambling town to the immediate south. I thank her for that, this place is much too beautiful to be marred by the beep-beep-beeping of video slots and the dull roar of money being pissed away.

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