Grand Hotel Histories

Compelling Places, Fascinating Stories

The intriguing history of Southern Indiana’s French Lick and West Baden Springs hotels traces to 1778 when George Rogers Clark is said to have discovered the area’s mineral springs and salt licks, which drew abundant wildlife.

West Baden

West Baden Springs Hotel

The Eighth Wonder of the World

After a 1901 fire destroyed the original West Baden Springs Hotel, located a mile north of Taggart’s French Lick hotel, owner Lee Sinclair built the hotel of his dreams on the same site—a circular building, topped by an immense dome and decorated like the grandest spas of Europe. Architect Harrison Albright accepted Sinclair’s challenge to complete the building within a year.

Opened in 1902 and billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” the hotel featured an atrium—200 feet across by 100 feet tall—a space that remained the world’s largest free span dome until Houston’s Astrodome was constructed in the 1960s.

As at French Lick, the wealthy and famous—and more rarely the infamous, including gangsters—came to take the waters and gamble during the first three decades of the 20th century, often booking lengthy stays. West Baden’s own brand, Sprudel Water, reputedly cured or improved nearly all diseases and afflictions. Guests could drink and bathe in the water in the hotel and in several elegant springs pavilions arranged around the sunken garden.

Ed Ballard, owner of circuses and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and other resorts, bought the property in 1923. The 1929 stock market crash dealt a blow and the hotel closed in 1932. For the next 50 years the property was a Jesuit seminary, followed by ten years as Northwood Institute, a private college.

After nearly 10 years of vacancy and dilapidation—and a partial collapse of the building—the property was rescued and partially restored, beginning in 1996, by a partnership of Cook Group and Indiana Landmarks.

Beginning in 1996 and throughout the restoration, Indiana Landmarks offered guided tours of the West Baden Springs Hotel with the assistance of local volunteers. We remain the exclusive provider of daily tours at the hotel. It’s a place that must be experienced in person to be fully appreciated.

French Lick Springs Hotel

Taking the Waters with Franklin & Bing

The history of Southern Indiana’s French Lick and West Baden Springs hotels traces to 1778 when George Rogers Clark is said to have discovered the area’s mineral springs and salt licks. The salt licks and the supposed curative powers of the spring water combined with the idyllic landscape drew animal and human visitors from the earliest days.

The region’s reputation as a resort area began in the 1830s. By the late nineteenth century, seven rail lines brought guests from all over the U.S. to the Springs Valley to relax and take the mineral water cure.

In 1901, Thomas Taggart bought and enlarged the French Lick Springs Hotel, facing it with the trademark buff colored French Lick brick. He continued to expand it over the next 20 years, adding three six-story wings.

Taggart rose from restaurant waiter to success in politics, serving as mayor of Indianapolis, U.S. Senator, and national chairman of the Democratic Party. In the 1890s, Taggart bought his first hotel in Indianapolis. He remained a force in national Democratic politics until his death in 1929.

His charisma and marketing savvy drew an elite clientele that included Joe and Rose Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, the Reagans, John Barrymore, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Howard Hughes and Lana Turner, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and many more.

In the luxurious Pluto Bar, guests could take a dose of Pluto Water, the hotel’s own brand of mineral water, bottled on site and sold around the world. The beverage carried the slogan “when Nature won’t, Pluto will,” a reference to the water’s powerful laxative properties. Production of Pluto Water ceased in 1971 after Lithium, one of the naturally occurring elements in Pluto Water, was classified as a controlled substance.

When Taggart bought the hotel, golf was a relatively new sport in America. He hired Thomas Bendelow to design Valley Course, which opened in 1907 and was expanded by 1910. Taggart’s son Tom later assumed the day-to-day management. The Taggarts added a second golf course in 1920 designed by the famed Donald Ross. The Hill Course hosted the PGA Championship in 1924, won by Walter Hagen.

Tom Taggart sold the French Lick Springs Hotel in 1946. Although it remained open through the following decades under several different owners, the hotel grew tired and shabby by the turn of the twenty-first century.

Recent History of Both

Restored to great acclaim

The Cook family of Bloomington, preeminent preservationists who had been involved with Indiana Landmarks since 1996 in the rescue and restoration of West Baden Springs Hotel a mile away, bought the French Lick Springs Hotel in 2005.

The community, Cook Group and Indiana Landmarks successfully lobbied for the state’s last casino license for the area as the key to reviving the dwindled fortunes of the two hotels. Cook Group later won the license and built a casino between the two hotels. The company completely restored the French Lick Springs Hotel and golf courses, reopening with the casino in 2006.

In 2006, Indiana Landmarks sold the West Baden Springs Hotel hotel to a Cook company which completed the restoration begun in 1996. In May 2007, for the first time since 1932, the West Baden Springs Hotel opened to overnight guests and great acclaim. Indiana Landmarks holds a preservation easement on the property that guarantees the National Historic Landmark’s perpetual protection.

New features at West Baden include a pool and spa building that is a faithful replica of the property’s long-lost natatorium. A new 18-hole golf course on the hill above West Baden Springs, designed by Pete Dye, opened in 2009 with Mt. Airie, the historic Taggart mansion, as the course clubhouse.

The two hotels, three golf courses, and casino operate under the name French Lick Resort, and have won prizes from tourism, architecture, preservation and golfing organizations.