One of my favorite places to visit and stay in Indiana is the West Baden Springs Hotel in Orange County. While the nearby French Lick Springs Hotel draws visitors for their splendid casino and restaurant scene, I’m drawn to the historic architecture, atmosphere, and grounds at West Baden Springs Hotel.
On a recent trip to the historic hotel, I stayed exclusively to take advantage of the atrium. For writers (and readers), the atrium provides an excellent venue to whittle away the the day writing and with a good book, unlike any place else in Indiana. The ‘ghosts’ of so many famous visitors and the historical ambiance are quite palpable in the air. Every Hoosier should stay here at least once in their lives. In the colder months of the year, it’s a great place to stay if you are looking to relax inside!
The uniqueness of the hotel is due to the sheer enormity of the structure, once affectionately known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The 200 foot dome covering the atrium first opened (along with the rest of the hotel) to the public in 1902. From that year until 1913, it was the largest free-spanning dome in the entire world. In the United States, it held that title until 1955 when the Coliseum opened in Charlotte.
The West Baden Springs Hotel is the third such structure to exist on the property. The first hotel (Mile Lick Inn) was opened in 1852 when West Baden Springs was known as Mile Lick. Around the time of the Civil War, the hotel became known as West Baden Springs Hotel after Mile Lick changed names to West Baden Springs, in honor of Wiesbaden, Germany.
Eventually, the hotel and property came under the control of Lee Sinclair and E.R. Rhodes. In 1891, the first hotel was lost in a fire. A new structure was built, but it too was destroyed in a fire in 1901. Sinclair built a third structure in less than a year, which was completed in 1902.
In the earliest years, the dome drew many visitors, but the facility also had golf courses, horseback riding, a bank, and a baseball diamond. After another fire, the hotel was significantly remodeled around the time of the First World War. It remained an active resort, popular with the well-to-do (also mobsters) until the Great Depression. The current owners have done a fantastic job of letting the 1920s permeate the atmosphere of the whole building. It’s like being in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, but without the malevolent spirits.
After the Great Depression ruined the business, then owner Edward Ballard sold the hotel to the Jesuits, who opened a seminary on the property. The Jesuits operated the seminary from 1934 until 1966, when they sold it to a private college, which opened the Northwood Institute.
In time, the school closed and the property passed into the hands of several investors. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987 and by the early 1990s, the hotel was in such bad shape that the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed it on their most endangered list. Indiana Landmarks made efforts in the early 1990s to preserve the structure as much as possible.
In 2005, the Cooke Group, Inc. bought both the West Baden Springs and French Lick Springs hotels and restored both facilities. By 2007, West Baden Springs Hotel reopened to the public.
Back to the atrium – it’s just a great place to hangout, write, read, play games, and have a drink. I spent six days here and finished four books and about 10,000 words (including the ones you are reading). When crowds became large in the afternoon, I retreated into the fabulous library to continue work, or up to my room for a nap. I would frequently stay in the atrium until 2 or 3 AM when it was totally quiet.
If you need a break with a bit more excitement, a quick trolley ride over to the casino in French Lick Springs Hotel, or one of the bars in town are worth the trip.
Want to learn more about things to do in French Lick & West Baden? Read about French Lick Winery, the cute town of Paoli, the nearby ski resort Paoli Peaks and the upclose encounters you can experience with elephants, giraffes and now bears!
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