A gnome’s watching me as I sip Vienna cinnamon tea in the lobby of the West Baden Springs Hotel. He seems a little out of place in the elegant domed atrium. But, I find out later, he’s right at home. The gnome is Sprudel, the unofficial hotel mascot. Sprudel is German for mineral water. And mineral water is why the hotel is here.
That’s just a tiny part of the story at West Baden and neighboring French Lick Springs Hotel in southern Indiana—stories that include fire, a partial collapse at West Baden, a wealthy benefactor and mysterious angel paintings.
Today’s visitors come to the resorts mainly for golf courses and a casino, but for those interested in history, Indiana Landmarks volunteers lead one-hour tours ($10).
Guides explain that hotel development in French Lick started in the mid-1800s to capitalize on the area’s mineral springs, which were believed to have medicinal powers. Visitors could enjoy not only a sip of “Sprudel Water” at West Baden but also a casino, opera house, bowling alley, golf course, and pony and bicycle track.
In June 1901, disaster struck. A fire destroyed West Baden in less than two hours. The owner, Lee W. Sinclair, vowed to build the hotel of his dreams: a circular building topped with a dome—and it opened a year later.
The new hotel featured a spectacular 100-foot-tall domed atrium, touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was said to be the world’s largest freestanding dome, and a remarkable engineering feat, with rollers so the dome could expand and contract with the changing Indiana climate.
Sinclair’s daughter, Lillian, and her husband added even more grand touches in 1916-17. Italian artisans hand-cut 12 million 1-inch marble squares for an intricate mosaic floor, and the huge lobby fireplace was refaced with a tile scene—including Sprudel—by Cincinnati’s renowned Rookwood Pottery.
But business began to decline, and West Baden closed in 1932. It housed a Jesuit seminary, then a college, and finally stood vacant and deteriorating. In winter 1991, ice buildup led to the partial collapse of an exterior wall.
It was clear that only a huge investment would save the hotel. Indiana Landmarks helped raised money to stabilize the structure. Eventually, Indiana entrepreneur Bill Cook and his Cook Group took over both West Baden and French Lick. After spare-no-expense renovations estimated at $560 million, French Lick reopened in 2006 and West Baden in 2007. Today, guests relax in luxurious surroundings and enjoy many of the same pastimes as patrons 100 years ago.
One treasure you won’t see, except in photos: West Baden’s eight painted angels. The originals, from the early 1900s, are inside a steel drum that is part of West Baden’s magnificent dome. No one knows who painted them or why. “They’re high above us,” our tour guide says. “Somebody had to watch over this hotel all those years.”
I think Sprudel is keeping watch, too.
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