French Lick History 1901-1946
Expansion marks the Taggart era, Part I
In 1901, a partnership that included Monon Railroad President W. M. McDoel, Terre Haute brewery owner Crawford Fairbanks, quarry owner Col. Livingston T. Dickason, and politician and hotelier Thomas Taggart purchased the French Lick Springs Hotel. A tragic fire in 1901 at the West Baden Springs Hotel meant more business for the rival French Lick and its new owners spent over $200,000 on improvements, reconstructing and enlarging the front wing and facing it with the trademark buff colored “French Lick brick” in a design by architect William Homer Floyd.
In 1905, Thomas Taggart bought out his partners. Over the next 20 years, he steadily expanded the hotel, adding six-story wings to the south, west and north. He built pavilions to shelter the Pluto, Proserpine, and Bowles Springs, a new bath building (site of the current spa), and a large convention hall with many smaller meeting rooms. In addition running the hotel, Taggart brought electricity, a water system, and a trolley line to the town while remaining active in state and national politics.
An Irish immigrant, Taggart rose from lowly positions in the restaurant trade to running eateries in the new Union Station in Indianapolis and success in politics. Taggart served as a three-term mayor of Indianapolis, a U.S. Senator, and national chairman of the Democratic Party. In the 1890s, Taggart bought his first hotel, the Grand in Indianapolis, which became a gathering place for local and visiting politicians. He remained a force in national Democratic politics until his death in 1929.
Along with the waters and the appeal of getting away from it all to relax and de-stress, Taggart’s charisma and marketing savvy drew an elite clientele to the resort. The names of famous guests from all walks of life fills pages, including Joe and Rose Kennedy, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, the Reagans, John Barrymore, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Howard Hughes and Lana Turner, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. When the first Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV wanted to flee New York and the publicity surrounding her divorce in 1909, she came to French Lick. The Astors were among the wealthiest people in the nation and, as owners of the Waldorf Astoria and other grand hotels, discriminating consumers.
Until the expansion of the front wing and the addition of the veranda, the hotel’s main entrance was in the Beaux Arts-style structure section known as the Pluto Bar, where guests could take a dose of Pluto Water upon entering the hotel. The luxurious Pluto Bar paid homage to the hotel’s own brand of mineral water, named for the god of the underworld since the mineral waters sprang from underground sources. Bottled and sold throughout the world, the beverage carried the slogan “when Nature won’t, Pluto will,” a reference to the water’s powerful laxative properties.
Folks would come for the spring or fall “Watering Season”, and many would come for both. Hotel staff physicians would prescribe a regimen of drinking the water, taking walks, and diet for each “Patient.” French Lick offered three springs, Bowles (Later named Lithia), Pluto, and Proserpine. In 1903, sales of Pluto water exceeded $52,000. The sale of such a product all over the nation was a tonic for the hotel, as well as the users. Each bottle sold was worth its weight in “advertising gold.”
When Thomas Taggart bought the resort, golf was a relatively new sport in America. He hired Thomas Bendelow to design the nine-hole the Valley Course, which opened in 1907 and was expanded to 18 holes by 1910. Its clubhouse was built c.1915.
History of French Lick
1845-1900: From salt lick to health resort
1901-1946: Expansion marks the Taggart era, Part I
1901-1946: Expansion marks the Taggart era, Part II