Column: Restoring hotels’ past glories

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In the 1920s, West Baden Springs and French Lick, with world-famous mineral springs, were hosting hundreds of people a day in their mile-apart resort hotels. All that changed with the Great Depression. The West Baden Springs Hotel closed in 1932 and became first a Jesuit seminary and then a campus of Northwood Institute. The French Lick Springs Hotel continued operations but suffered another blow when Gov.Henry Schricker closed the area’s illegal casinos in 1949. Between 1930 and 1960, French Lick and West Baden Springs lost about 22 percent of their populations. In 1991, an exterior wall of the vacant and deteriorating West Baden Springs Hotel, once the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” collapsed.

In 1992, Indiana Landmarks funded structural stabilization of the West Baden Springs Hotel, a National Historic Landmark since 1987. Beginning in 1996, Bill Cook, founder of Bloomington-based Cook Group Inc., and his wife Gayle began funding extensive restorations of the West Baden Springs Hotel and its grounds, replacing the four Moorish towers demolished by the Jesuits and reconstructing the natatorium. In 2005, after Indiana authorized a French Lick casino, a Cook company acquired the French Lick Springs Hotel and built a casino adjacent to the hotel.  After improvements costing more than $500 million restored both hotels to their original opulence, they opened to the public in 2006 under common ownership, with a trolley running between them. Their meticulously maintained grounds include 30 miles of hiking trails, a stable and three challenging golf courses.

The reopening of the hotels has revitalized their communities, exemplified by the French Lick West Baden Museum that opened in 2011, celebrating the history of the area and of Larry Bird, its favorite son. Once again, French Lick and West Baden Springs are definitely worth your visit. Guided tours of both hotels can be arranged at indianalandmarks.org/tours-events/ongoing-tours-events/french-lick-west-baden/.


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