With its 200-foot-diameter glass dome over the atrium and fireplace that burns 14-foot-long logs, the West Baden Springs Hotel is one of those historic structures that takes your breath away.
When it was built in 1902, the expansive dome of the storied resort in West Baden, Indiana, was the largest unsupported dome in the world.
In a rush to replace an earlier hotel that burned in 1901, a 500-man crew worked six days a week in 10-hour shifts for 270 days to finish the new structure, which cost $414,000 — close to $13 million in today’s dollars. Italian craftsmen inlaid the marble mosaic floors. Rookwood pottery tiles outline the massive fireplace.
These days, the West Baden Springs Hotel has been restored to its Gilded Age glory. The 243 guest rooms and suites are elegantly furnished — the dark wood bureaus have medallions with a picture of the hotel. The color scheme is an understated ivory and old gold. Forty of the rooms have balconies overlooking the atrium. Nightly turn-down service is a plus.
There are indoor and outdoor pools, a hot tub and (of course) a full-service spa. Free WiFi is available throughout. It’s pet-friendly (I saw several dogs while I was there). An expansive formal garden invites strolling. However, drinking the malodorous sulphur water from the local springs is no longer recommended (in the 1970s, it was discovered to be tainted with traces of lithium, a controlled substance).
In partnership with its sister property, the French Lick Resort and Casino, the hotel offers tee-times at three different golf courses (including one designed by Pete Dye), bowling alleys, game arcade, rows of shops, and horseback riding. (There’s shuttle service covering the one mile between the hotels.)
Arriving in your electric car? Two Model S Tesla 80-amp single phase charging stations and one Clipper Creek model HCS 32-amp output charging station are available 24/7 in the back parking lot near the lower level meeting entrance. Both valet and self-parking are available at no charge.
“Taking the waters” once was a routine vacation for the moneyed elite in Europe and the United States. One of the oldest spa towns in Europe is Weisbaden. The name means “meadow baths” in German, a reference to its healing springs, but translated into Hoosier English, Weisbaden became West Baden.
The hotel prospered until the Stock Market crash in 1929. In the 1930s, it was sold to the Jesuits for a seminary, and when that enterprise floundered, it was transferred to Northwood Institute, a Michigan-based college. By the 1980s, Northwood had moved out, and the hotel fell into ruin.
In 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the hotel as one of America’s most endangered places. What happened next is the stuff of legend (not to mention several magazine articles and a few books). A long story, it involves Indiana Landmarks (an Indianapolis non-profit with a statewide reach), the obsession of philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook (billionaire owners of Cook Group in Bloomington, Indiana), and a whole lot of good timing.
All of this history (and more) is explained on guided tours of the hotel that are offered daily by docents from Indiana Landmarks, which bought the derelict hotel in 1996 to save it from the wrecking ball.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the hotel became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and one of the hotels in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America program.
The hallway to the spa wing is a symphony in ivory and gold.
(Photos courtesy of West Baden Springs Hotel and by Susan McKee, whose stay there was hosted by the hotel)