gBy Ann Hattes
The Eighth Wonder of the World! A legendary Donald Ross golf course. Healing spa waters and Vegas-style gaming excitement. Glamour, gold and gardens. You’ll find it all at French Lick and West Baden in southern Indiana. If children and/or grandchildren are along on the mini-vacation, drive just a few more miles to explore Lincoln childhood haunts and celebrate Christmas, Halloween, July 4th. and Thanksgiving at an amusement park.
At the turn of the century, upper-crust health seekers and well-heeled high-rollers from throughout the nation traveled to West Baden and French Lick, drawn by the area’s mineral springs and health treatments, sports and entertainment venues, black-tie gambling casinos, and two of the most fashionable hotels in the nation. This small southwestern Indiana hotspot which in its heyday had 30 hotels and 15 clubs became known as the Monte Carlo of America with gambling continuing illegally until 1949.
Frequent noted guests here included Al Capone, “Diamond” Jim Brady, Cole Porter, John Dillinger, Joe Louis, Bing Crosby, the Marx Brothers and Franklin D. Roosevelt. World famous French chef Louis Perrin was brought to the French Lick Hotel to impress the powerful and influential guests.
Both the French Lick Springs Hotel, built in 1901, and the West Baden Springs Hotel, built in 1902, and within a mile of each other, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. West Baden was once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” for its six-story atrium, 200 feet in diameter and soaring 110 feet in height, the world’s largest free-span dome until the Astrodome opened in 1965. In the early 1900s, circus acts performed inside the hotel. “It was really something in the atrium,” said Kathleen Horner, age 92. “Even the elephants looked small in such a large area.”
With the Depression and time, both hotels fell on hard times. West Baden eventually closed and fell into ruin. Local residents teamed with the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana and Indiana philanthropists and entrepreneurs, Bill and Gayle Cook, to restore the awe-inspiring landmark. The Cooks also restored the French Lick Springs Hotel and casino, with half of the casino profits donated for historic preservation and education, the rest to retire debt.
With décor evocative of its early 20th century heyday, the luxury West Baden Springs Hotel opened in May 2007, 75 years after it closed in the Depression. Called by some the “Save of the Century,” it is one of the largest private historic restorations in the history of the United States. A total of $500 million has been spent on the meticulous renovations of the two hotels, golf courses and gardens.
When visiting, consider taking a 60-minute guided tour of each hotel offered daily by Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. Be awed by the architecture and hear the hotels’ very different and equally fascinating stories. At the French Lick Hotel, feel the presence of history where FDR announced his presidential candidacy during the 1931 Governor’s Conference and a few short years later introduced his New Deal Platform. Also hear about the Chicago Cubs doing spring training here for many years.
Golf enthusiasts walk in the footsteps of history playing the restored 18-hole links-style Donald Ross Course, scene of Walter Hagen’s PGA championship victory in 1924. Donald Ross, the “father of golf course architecture,” created 30 of the top 100 historic courses in the world. There’s also a redesigned Tom Bendelow Course plus a Pete Dye “walkable” course opening in 2009. French Lick Resort courses have been chosen as the site of the 2010 PGA Professional National Championship.
Many guests enjoy indulging at either of the two full service spas where Pluto Water, historically known for its healing minerals since the 1800s, is still a mainstay of spa treatments.
For children ages 6–12 French Lick Resort has added golf, a Dude Ranch experience, Hoosier Safari, Kidarts and High School Musical Party. For adults there’s the Art of Shopping, ballroom dancing, and culinary happenings with Movies Under the Stars for all on Sunday evenings at sunset.
Beyond the luxury, glamour and gold décor of the resort hotels, visitors discover the Indiana Railway Museum and French Lick Scenic Railway which offers two hour round trip train rides through the Hoosier National Forest and the 2,200 foot Burton Tunnel on weekends and holidays. Western-style train robberies are staged on special weekends.
A few miles down the road in Santa Claus, children enjoy thrills at the four holiday themed amusement sections of Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari waterpark. Soft drinks are free and unlimited. Sunscreen and use of inner tubes in the water park are free, as is parking. Nearby in Lincoln City it’s possible to learn about the lives of Abraham Lincoln and his family at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial with its museum and working pioneer homestead.
Luxury, history and fun adventures abound for young and old in southern Indiana.
If You Go
* For information on both hotels, visit frenchlick.com or call 1-888-694-4332
* Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana: historiclandmarks.org
* Holiday World: holidayworld.com; 877-463-2645
* Indiana Railway Museum: indianarailwaymuseum.org; 800-74-TRAIN
* Southern Indiana: exploresouthernindiana.com