This Was Once The Eighth Wonder Of The World

Real Estate

When it opened for business on September 15, 1902, the newly constructed West Baden Springs Hotel in southern Indiana was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Indeed, it is hard to overstate the drama of looking down into the atrium from one of the rooms encircling the vast space. The enormous 200-foot dome is part of an ambitious rebuilding project by hotel owner Lee Wiley Sinclair after a fire destroyed the previous hotel building in 1901. In business since the mid-19th century, the hotel was established when travelers came to ‘take the waters’ at the mineral springs of the area; the community next to French Lick was named West Baden after Germany’s Wiesbaden, or Baden-Baden, another spa town known for its mineral springs.

Most building professionals rejected the idea of a 200-foot (61 m) dome, but West Virginia architect Harrison Albright took on the project. Oliver Westcott, a bridge engineer, designed the dome’s trusses. Prior to the completion of the Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1955, the hotel had the largest free-spanning dome in the United States. From 1902 to 1913, it was the largest dome in the world.

After the Stock Market crash of 1929, the hotel lost its glittering clientele, and, in 1934, was given to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits.) They renovated the property to convert it into an austere seminary named West Baden College, an affiliate of Chicago’s Loyola University, and removed most of the hotel’s luxurious fixtures, furnishings, and decorations. The lobby was converted into a chapel with the addition of French doors and stained-glass windows. The former hotel’s four Moorish towers were removed from the exterior after they fell into disrepair. Truckloads of stone were dumped into the mineral spring pools, then capped with concrete and turned into shrines for the saints.

The seminary operated for thirty years, but was closed following the 1963–64 school year due to low enrollment and escalating maintenance costs. In 1966, the Jesuits sold the property to Macauley and Helen Dow Whiting, who donated it to Northwood Institute, a private, coeducational college founded in Midland, Michigan. The former hotel/Jesuit seminary was operated as a satellite campus of Northwood’s business management school from 1968 to 1983. By its third year at West Baden Springs, the school’s enrollment exceeded 400 students, including basketball legend Larry Bird, who was born in West Baden. He held basketball clinics and staged games in the atrium.

The Jesuits and Northwood’s owners maintained the building’s structure, leaving it in reasonably good shape, but after the 1980s, the building deteriorated. The property was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987, but in 1989 it was declared unsafe, and closed. During the winter of 1991, ice built up on the roof and in drainpipes, leading to the partial collapse of an exterior wall. In 1992 the National Trust for Histric Preservation listed the hotel as one of America’s most endangered places.

Bill Cook, a billionaire entrepreneur, and his wife, Gayle, historic preservationists from Bloomington, Indiana, initiated efforts to stabilize the hotel’s structural integrity and begin exterior restoration during the summer of 1996. The thirty-month first phase of the project was completed in early 1999 at a cost of $30 million, two-and-a-half times the Cooks’ initial commitment. In addition to the exteriors of the hotel and outbuildings, the garden was recreated, and the interior atrium, lobby, dining room and adjoining rooms were also restored. Over the next five years, the Cook Group spent another $5 million for maintenance.

The Cook Group unsuccessfully marketed the property nationally for more than five years before realizing that casino gaming would be the key to their success. Legislation was finally approved in 2003 and the required local referendum passed. The Trump Organization was initially granted the gambling license by the Indiana Gaming Commission, but Trump’s subsequent bankruptcy caused the selection process to begin again. The Cook family formed a new company that applied for and received the gambling license and, in June of 2007, a gala event marked the reopening of the West Baden Springs Hotel, seventy-five years after it closed.

The total cost of the complete restoration of the West Baden Springs Hotel totaled almost $100 million. Indiana Landmarks holds a perpetual preservation easement on the West Baden Springs Hotel that requires prior approval to make any changes to the hotel’s exterior or grounds, even if ownership changes.

This may still be one of the great wonders of the world.

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