01 February 2016

Jan 4, 2016 INDIANA French Lick 2 - The Dome is Our Home

... at least for two nights of celebration. Having a birthday on January 4th is good and bad news. The bad news is everyone is partied out from the holidays, so not much enthusiasm to celebrate my BD. The good news is when traveling there are no lines (like at Disneyland) and it is not crowded. Yet festive holiday decorations are still up for us to enjoy. Bonus: prices are cheaper!!

The West Baden Springs Hotel is fabulous, even if you are not a golfer and even if it is the middle of winter. As we walked in the door we were met by two young bellhops with wide smiles, behind a huge wood-carved desk.
They directed us across the floor of the hemisphere dome. Three other arched entries lead to the mineral springs, the long front porch with rocking chairs (similar to the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island), and the front desk.

In the middle of the floor of the dome stood a huge Christmas tree. The six-story high structure was lined with balconies decorated with boughs of greenery and huge Christmas ornaments hanging beneath them. We have been to a number of historic hotels, but have never seen anything like this. Jaw-dropping! Here Mike is waving from our sixth floor balcony.
When built in 1855 as a health resort by Dr. John Lane, it was originally called the Mile Lick Hotel. It was also the largest free-spanning dome in the world. It is 200 feet in diameter at floor level. At that time it was dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World." It remained the largest in the U.S. until 1955 when the Colliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina was built.

Dr. Lane also changed the name of part of the town from French Lick (which still exists right "next door") to West Baden, after the famous mineral springs in Wiesbaden, Germany.

In 1888, Lee W. Sinclair purchased the hotel. In 1901 a fire ravaged the structure (no fatalities, thank goodness). That offered the opportunity to rebuild the site as a sophisticated resort destination rather than a health spa. He also developed a nearby opera house, golf course, pony and bicycle track, ball field, and lovely grounds to complete the package.
In 1923, the property was bought by Ed Ballard and it became a gambling center. 

Then in the stock market crash of 1934, he sold the hotel to the religious order of the Jesuits for $1. They eliminated many of the fine amenities and operated a seminary school, known as West Baden College, for 30 years. In 1983, it became Northwood Institute, a private college. From 1985 until 1992 it remained vacant and neglected to the point where it was unsafe for entry.

In the next incarnation of the life of this structure, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana bought it for $250,000. They invested $140,000 and an anonymous donor contributed $70,000. The monies stabilized the structure and at that point it was put up for sale to investors. It was a package deal for this hotel, along with the French Lick Springs Hotel, another historic inn located one mile away in French Lick.

The Cook Group (a Bloomington medical device and supply company) and other interested parties (such as Donald Trump--glad he did not get it!!) looked at the package. Cook ultimately purchased the properties. Then in 2005, they invested $500 MILLION (that's half a billion!) to complete the historic restoration project and grounds improvements. They did so in a most exquisite fashion.

Somewhere along the line there were as many as 780 rooms. Today half of the 243 luxury suites face inside the dome and half face the lovely outside grounds. We had an inside room on the 6th (and top) floor. Our room included a tub, separate marble shower, separate toilet room, bar, sitting area, king-size bed, and two windows and a balcony overlooking the entire dome interior. When we got to our room there were birthday roses waiting. A nice touch!

Public areas featured the original long wood reception desk with nearby vault, a colorful fireplace that holds 14-foot logs, spa with natural mineral baths (more tomorrow), complete circle walkways around each floor, museum featuring the history of the hotel (antique logo dinnerware, barber chair, awards, and much more), Women's Golf Hall of Fame, library, billiard and game room, a few stores, four dining choices and more. The lighting fixtures and mosaic tile were also awesome.

The dome is, of course, the outstanding feature. During the day you see the sky through clear windows. At night are lights changing reflective colors. The interior design of the dome is elaborate with paintings of period men and women and gold leaf decorations (see our balcony photo above). Every detail is top notch and lovely.

Another feature I love is that every few yards around the circular hall are compasses in the carpet. Although there are no windows to the outdoors to orient yourself directionally, as you walk the hall you can keep track of where north is by the change in the carpet design.
After exploring the many nooks and crannies of this circular wonder, we stopped at Ballard's Bar, located in the dome, for a few cocktails and snacks. We shared a wonderful shrimp cocktail and soup-and-sandwich. Back in our room I sat on our wooden balcony floor (no chair quite fit out the door) and people-watched for a long time while Mike read. It was so relaxing and entertaining, I had a hard time breaking way for bedtime.
In 1974 this hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, became a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and is an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

For more info at Wikipedia, click here.
Here, you will also find books about the history of the hotel.

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