BY GRACE HOUSHOLDER
Thanks to Indiana Landmarks and the vision and generosity of entrepreneurs William and Gayle Cook and their family, southern Indiana is home to one of the eighth wonders of the world — West Baden Springs Hotel.
Indiana Landmarks is the largest private statewide historic preservation organization in the U.S., founded in 1960 by a volunteer group led by businessman and philanthropist Eli Lilly.
William Cook and his wife Gayle of Bloomington co-founded the medical equipment manufacturer Cook Group. Prior to his death in 2011, William Cook was the state’s richest man, with wealth estimated at more than $3 billion.
Other eighth wonders of the world range from the Empire State Building to the Taj Mahal to the International Space Station.
My husband Terry and I spent two nights this past weekend at West Baden Springs Hotel, about 90 minutes south of Indianapolis. French Lick Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel opened at 50% capacity in mid-June. West Baden Springs Hotel expects to continue operating at 50% capacity through the end of the year.
A mile apart, the two hotels are connected by paved trails and also, in normal times but not necessarily during a pandemic, by a train. Currently the nearby train history museum has reduced operating hours.
Due to the reduced number of guests and exceptional attention to health — such as requiring masks and daily temperature checks — we did not feel foolhardy to plan a weekend there.
West Baden Springs Hotel is a “wonder of the world” because of the magnificent 200-foot dome covering its atrium. When it was built in 1901, doubters had no doubt that the dome would fall when the supports were removed.
But engineering and architectural genius proved them wrong. Until 1913 it was the largest free-standing dome in the world. Under the dome, illustrious guests — including politicians, industrialists and entertainers — livened the elegant exotic revival style decor.
Why would anyone build a stunning domed hotel in the middle of the remote, deeply rolling, wooded hills of southern Indiana? What was the draw?
It goes back to the mid-1800s when it was discovered that the mineral water bubbling from the sulphur springs of Mile Lick (the original name of West Baden Springs) seemed to have health benefits. People started coming to West Baden Springs to “take the cure,” soaking in the water and/or drinking it.
West Baden Springs got its name from Baden-Baden, Germany, one of the world’s best-known spa towns. In German, baden (pronounced bah den) means “to bathe.”
West Baden Springs Hotel is part of the French Lick Springs Casino Resort. The French Lick Hotel, its casino and West Baden Springs Hotel share complicated and convoluted histories that include everything from “Pluto Water,” the marketing name in the 1800s for the bottled mineral water that was shipped nationwide … to Las Vegas before Las Vegas.
When the illegal Las Vegas-style gambling — overlooked by authorities for decades — was shut down in a raid in May 1949, economic and architectural decline set in.
Had not Indiana Landmarks and William and Gayle Cook stepped forward, the dome would have fallen down and the whole structure would have eventually crumbled.
Nearly 20 years ago Terry and I took a road trip to southern Indiana and spent a few nights at the then worn-looking French Lick Hotel.
We visited the nearby West Baden Springs Hotel — we even got to go inside. When we were told that Indiana Landmarks was working to restore the properties to their original splendor, I thought “Good luck!” It sounded like a wonderful — but nearly impossible — goal.
But with General Assembly approval for a casino designed to look like a riverboat, total commitment by Indiana Landmarks and the ongoing philanthropy of William and Gayle Cook — to the tune of $500 million — and their family, the dream did come true.
And we are all richer for it.
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GRACE HOUSHOLDER is a columnist and editorial writer for KPC newspaper. Contact her at email@example.com.