The French Lick Springs Hotel, 8670 West State Road 56, French Lick, Indiana, is an unlikely success story in the 21st Century. It started as a spa hotel in 1845, went through several owners, burned down, was rebuilt and remodeled a couple of times, and, beginning a few decades ago, went into a slow decline.
Along came Indiana Landmarks, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit with a particular interest in historic buildings. They enlisted the help of the billionaire Cook family of Bloomington, Indiana, who bought the property in 2005. The hotel, a AAA four diamond property along with its sister property one mile to the north, the West Baden Springs Hotel, is part of French Lick Resort which is owned by the Cook Group.
Today, hundreds of millions of dollars of restoration and remodeling later, the French Lick Springs Hotel is a thriving enterprise once again, with 443 rooms, a casino, 165,000 square feet of event space, and all the amenities a visitor could want from a bowling alley to three golf courses. An additional 56 guestrooms and a new sports bar are under construction near the hotel’s event center and casino.
I had been reading about the hotel for years, and couldn’t wait to check it out. The exterior of yellow “French Lick Brick” was added in 1901. That’s when Indianapolis politician Thomas Taggart bought the hotel and enlarged it. Seven rail lines brought guests from all over the United States.
The 1920s, tumultuous times, solidified the gambling reputation of French Lick (at one time there were said to be more than 50 gambling halls). When “looking the other way” stopped in the 1940s, and the Indiana State Police shut down the casinos, the hotel lost its cachet.
Now — after years of vigorous lobbying — the hotel has the only land-based casino in the state. I’m not a gambler, but even I was impressed with the 51,000-square-foot Vegas-style gaming facility. I peeked in to see some of the 1,000 slot machines and 37 live-dealer game tables, but I couldn’t see the high-limit gaming area and VIP lounges.
I was far more interested in the mundane, especially the spa (still offering baths in that famous mineral water) and the two swimming pools — one indoors and one outside. If I’d had time, I would have loved to take a canter on one of the horses in the stables. I’m not a golfer, but I’ve heard the 18-hole Pete Dye Course is quite the challenge.
The guest rooms are quiet and tastefully appointed (and not over-the-top gilded like the lobby, which has 5,000 square feet of gold leaf). There’s complimentary high-speed WiFi plus the now-expected flat-screen television, hair dryer, coffee maker, and iron with ironing board. Pets are welcome with advance notice.
French Lick, a small town in Indiana with an unusual name, was popular as a resting place for centuries before the first hotels were built here. It’s on the Buffalo Trace, the animal migration path trod by generations of bison roaming from Illinois to Kentucky across Indiana, following the seasons.
There were salt licks in the area attracting both animals and Native Americans. In the 17th and 18th centuries, fur traders from French Canada camped here — hence the name.
The first French Lick Springs Hotel was built in 1845 to take advantage of the “miracle waters” flowing from springs that naturally surfaced in the area. Redolent with sulphur, the waters were supposed to cure all sorts of ailments whether guests bathed in it or drank it (or both). “Taking the waters” was so popular that a bottling plant was established, and its trademark “Pluto Water” exported worldwide — at least until the Food and Drug Administration tested the liquid in the 1970s, and found it contained lithium (a controlled substance).
All of this history (and more) is explained on guided tours of the hotel that are offered daily by docents from Indiana Landmarks, which also offers tours of the West Baden Springs Hotel.
French Lick Springs Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a National Trust Historic Hotel of America. Along with the West Baden Springs Hotel (one mile to the north), it forms the French Lick Resort, owned and operated by the Cook Group.
(Photos by Susan McKee, who was a guest of the hotel)