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Elegance Returning To Midwest's Largest Resort
By Francine Silverman
The glory days of Indiana's two grandest resorts are definitely gone. When it opened in 1902, West Baden Springs Hotel was dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. Closed as a hotel in 1932 and unoccupied since 1983, the crumbling structure is undergoing a massive restoration, its fate unknown.
Tourists standing in the Pompeian Court under the massive glass-and-steel dome must think they're in a Greek ruin. "This is probably Indiana's number one architectural landmark and it's going to be saved," declared my tour guide, Kent Abraham.
That remains to be seen. The owner, Historic Landmarks Foundation, is seeking a new user for the property. Cook Group, a Bloomington, Indiana-based medical technology company, is spending about $14 million to renovate a third of the facility. This is less than half of the estimated $40 million needed to restore the hotel and its 708 rooms to prime condition.
It's anyone's guess why French Lick Springs Resort, a mile away, survived the Depression and its chief rival did not.
After all, these two fashionable spas had much in common. Both had mineral springs, believed to cure everything from cancer to alcoholism to constipation. French Lick's "Pluto" water was bottled nationally as "America's Laxative," inspiring its motto, "When Nature Won't, Pluto Will."
These cold springs were mostly used for drinking - popularly called "dipping and sipping," although in 1920 a "Pluto Bath" was advertised, at 50 cents. Of the seven springs in the area, all but one were eventually capped over. The survivor is at French Lick, bubbling under a gazebo behind the hotel and smelling as foul as a hot spring. Paula Mills, the activities director, recalls: "As a child my father played in an orchestra here. I can remember Proserpine (spring), which was probably capped and covered with a brick patio sometime in the 1960s." She also recounts that "Paul Harvey used to spend a lot of time at French Lick" and that he discovered the mineral water contains lithium. This led to his "Rest of the Story," suggesting that health seekers were drugged into thinking they were cured.
Between 1887 and the 1950s, trains provided direct service to French Lick, at one point stopping there 14 times a day. Wealthy guests would spend their winters in Miami, summers in Mackinac Island in Michigan and the fall season at French Lick. They'd come to take the cure, some folks ingesting as many as 20 glasses a day. The laxative effect spawned several outhouses along the promenade, later replaced by the tennis courts. (Today's guests can bathe in the 22-mineral Pluto water in the health and fitness spa).
Both French Lick and West Baden were meccas for the gilded class - celebrities and mobsters alike. Between 1900 and World War I, it was common to see more than 100 private autos and Pullman cars parked on the sidings at both hotels. Photos in the basement at French Lick show Lana Turner signing an autograph on the front steps; Bing Crosby teeing up on the Hill course; George Jessel in the lobby; and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the ballroom accepting the presidential nomination in 1932. French Lick was also the spring training headquarters of the Chicago Cubs from 1879 to 1930. Between the 1920s and 1940s, the town boasted 12 gambling casinos and 20 hotels within a mile radius. Legend has it that Capone would arrive in a bulletproof car and gamble all night. He probably stayed at West Baden since he was refused entry at French Lick. "Anybody who was anybody was at French Lick at one time or another," says G. Alan Barnett, president of the Indiana Railway Museum for 35 years and conductor of the French Lick, West Baden Railroad. "This area never came back after the Depression.The hotel didn't close but the clientele would change dramatically."
Sadly, the basement memorabilia contains the only early history of French Lick. Tom Taggart Jr., who took over in 1929 after his father died, and sold in 1946, destroyed all the records from almost half a century. "I think for him the operation of the hotel became a real burden," says Mills. Despite his devotion to his employees, it was such a relief, she guesses. "Most of what we have is from a 1952 thesis by Richard Haupt at Indiana University."
We do know that the name French Lick originated in the 1700s when French fur traders observed livestock licking the mineral deposits found at the springs. Later on, American settlers built a fort in this "Valley of the Seven Springs." In 1845, physician William Bowles purchased the site and three mineral springs from the state of Indiana for $1.25 an acre. Eight years later, he opened the hotel and began selling "Pluto" water across the nation. (Two statues of these mythical gods of the lower world once guarded the springs from atop the old hotel entrance, but are now indoors).
The first French Lick hotel, a three-story frame structure, was destroyed by fire in 1897. In 1901, Tom J. Taggart, the former mayor of Indianapolis and Democratic boss, purchased the site. The West Baden Hotel had just burned to the ground and he didn't want to lose potential spa business. The present hotel, on 2600 acres, is an expanded and renovated version of Taggart's hotel.
Says Mills: "During the Taggart years, the furnishings were replaced quite frequently. Taggart always had a very modern hotel." The kitchen was self-sustaining, providing its own home-grown vegetables and milk products. A 1929 Christmas menu features barbequed opossum with southern candied yams and ice cream. (Tomato juice was first served and bottled in French Lick in 1917. A smokestack is all that's left of the factory).
Taggart's plan to create "the grandest hotel in the midwest" included a world class golf course, at a time when the sport was relatively new in the U.S. In 1907, he hired Scotsman Thomas Bendelow to build the 18-hole Valley Golf Link course. Six years later, he hired another Scotsman, Donald Ross, to design the championship Hill course two miles south of French Lick. Flat and treeless, the Valley course is used by the recreational golfer; the Hill course, set among rolling fairways and highbanked bunkers, is more challenging and professional. (Larry Bird, the town's favorite native son, plays there on a regular basis). "We are the only full spa, golf and tennis resort and convention hotel in the midwest," boasts Michael Pitstick of Boykin Lodging Company, owners of the hotel since April 1997. "Golf is our strongest attraction."
It's Barnett's opinion that French Lick survived because it was Democratic and had lower rates, whereas West Baden attracted Republicans. "Many of those people's wealth was on paper," he says. "Ed (Ballard) closed it in the Depression. His business came to a screeching halt. Taggart managed to have the wherewithal to hold the thing together."
Between 1954 and 1979, the property had several owners, including the Sheraton Hotel chain. In attempting to modernize it, they covered the front windows with wood, thereby blocking out sunlight, painted the brass white and hid the tile floors in the lobby under a carpet. "I can remember as a child marble being taken to the local dump," Mills says with a shudder.
Fortunately, in recent years the owners have taken an interest in enhancing the nearly century-old hotel. In the next ten years, Boykin plans to spend $20 million to improve the landscape and pool area. It also plans to re-route traffic and increase maintenance and food/beverage personnel by 25 percent each. The Luther James Family of Louisville, which assumed ownership in 1981, spent $7 million for renovations. "Luther James had three different decorators until he could finally find one," Mills recalls. "They remodeled a floor at a time. Most of the guests weren't even aware they were remodeling.
"The James family had planned to own it indefinitely," she adds, until it got an offer it couldn't refuse. "I thought they were going to be our Taggarts. Apparently Boykin made them three different offers, raising the price each time."
French Lick and its environs may not have the grandeur of old, but still holds a special place in the hearts of some. Barnett says he "fell in love" with the hotel years ago. Larry Bird, who has a home in town, "grew up with a lot of the people who work in our resort" and has his hair cut in the neighborhood, says Pitstick. When Bird was an NBA All-Star, a reporter asked how it felt to be home in Indianapolis. "I ain't from here," Bird replied in disbelief. "I'm from French Lick."
French Lick is the largest, most complete four-season resort in the Midwest. It has 485 guest rooms,15 meeting and function rooms and nine restaurants and lounges. Sports facilities include two 18-hole golf courses, eight indoor and ten outdoor tennis courts, complete health spa, horseback riding, bowling, bicycling, shuffleboard and horseshoes. There are planned social activities and live entertainment.
Francine Silverman is a New York City-based freelance writer, specializing in profiles and travel. Email: FSilver767@aol.com
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