History West Baden Springs Hotel, West Baden Indiana

The first hotel in the West Baden Springs vicinity was built in 1845. The Mile Lick Hotel, soon renamed the West Baden Springs Hotel, was constructed in 1855. Receiving its great impetus when the Louisville, New Albany and Chicago completed rail service through the town with the Monon Line, the first building, as expanded, served until it burned to the ground in 1901.

The present building was constructed in 1901-02 for the owner of the old hotel, Lee W. Sinclair, a banker from nearby Salem, Ind. Sinclair dreamed of building a vast domed structure but was turned down by a number of architects who thought the project impossible. He finally engaged Harrison Albright, a young architect from Charleston, West Virginia, to design the building and an engineer, Oliver J. Westcott, to plan the dome. (Because Sinclair feared being burned out again, he specified that a minimum of wood be used in construction: the hotel's foundations were stone, its floors concrete, and its plaster lath of heavy steel mesh.) to the astonishment of skeptics, the structure did not collapse.

Sinclair's hotel, which featured a music room, a theater, and a stock exchange, was an attraction in itself, but the resort's other amenities made it even more enticing. In addition to the spring houses, these included: a separate opera house; a double decked covered bicycle track that was the largest in the country, built in an oval a third of a mile around, and so large that a full-sized baseball field was in its center; a "natatorium" surrounded by three floors of bath facilities; a miniature Catholic cathedral on the hill to the west of the hotel; a golf course, bridle paths, and nature walks; and a trolley, at the door, to nearby French Lick.

The building's architecture is not as much an example of any particular style as an Olympian combination of several styles. Some of the outbuildings' styles, however, can be traced to mineral water health spas in Baden and Wiesbaden, Germany. In fact, the building known as Spring Seven had several entrances, over one of which is the name Sprudel Seben, German for "Spring Seven." The mineral water bottled by the hotel was called Sprudel Water after the Sprudel Wasser of Wiesbaden.

The hotel played a significant role in American social history. Guests came first for the mineral waters available there and for the hotel's many recreational amenities, but were also attracted by the gambling and gaming in the area, especially during the 1920s. It was a perennial vacation address for the great and near-great during the first three decades of the 20th century. The name of "Diamond Jim" Brady appeared on the guest register many times. General John J. Pershing, the Studebaker family, Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson of Chicago, New York Governor and Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, the humorist George Ade, and Eva ("I don't care") Tanguay were also guests, some of them coming year after year. The song "On the Banks of the Wabash" was written by Paul Dresser during a vacation at the hotel, and it was first played here. Boxers John L. Sullivan and Thomas J. Sharkey were also regular patrons. An infamous visitor was Al Capone, who came year after year in the 1920s-with his bodyguards.

Sinclair continued to run the hotel until his death in 1916. His daughter and son-in-law then took over its management. They conducted an extensive renovation, elements of which occurred both before and after the hotel's brief service as an Army hospital in 1918-19.

In 1922, the hotel was sold to Edward ("Ed") Ballard, a "local boy" who had become highly successful in the gambling casino and circus businesses. He ran casinos in Miami Beach, Fla., Hot Springs, Ark., Saratoga, N.Y., and Mackinac Island, Mich., as well as in West Baden Springs. He had also moved the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus to the West Baden Springs vicinity in 1915. Ballard was a great showman who used the hotel's "Big Dome" as a "big top" at times; he had, in fact, entertained the soldiers with circus performances there during the hotel's hospital service. Under Ballard, the hotel thrived until the Great Depression, although, like other Northern resorts, it began to lose trade to Florida and other distant resort locations that were becoming readily accessible by private automobile.

Ballard had - with wisdom or luck (or both) - liquidated his circus interests days before the stock market crash in 1929. He had not sold the hotel, however, and, out of loyalty to his home town, struggled to keep it open. Finally, in the spring of 1932, he closed its doors.

Ballard considered selling the hotel but found that the prime would-be purchasers were gambling interests of an unsavory variety. When he despaired of selling, he cast about for an organization that might use the structure for religious or educational purposes. Thus it was that in 1934, Ballard, although not himself a Catholic, donated the hotel to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) for use as a seminary. During its 30 years in that role, the hotel underwent modifications that subdued its flamboyant decoration.

In 1964, the seminary moved to new quarters near Chicago, and the Jesuits advertised the property for sale. In 1966, the Northwood Institute, a private collegiate school of business management, acquired the building. it served as one of the institute's campuses until 1983.

Eugene MacDonald, an experienced hotel owner who is a native of the area, purchased the hotel in late 1983, and planned to restore and reopen it.

After passing through several owners and several rounds of bankruptcy, restoration of the hotel was finally completed in 2007 and the hotel reopened.