Sunday, July 8, 2012

French Lick - Stepping Back in Time

This year the Indiana Scottish Rite Council of Deliberation was held down in French Lick, Indiana.  You there, in the back, stop laughing, right now!  Oh please, tell me we don't have to go through this again.  Oh well, if you insist.

But only if you stop snickering first.  The name comes from the fact that the valley is riddled with natural springs.  These springs leave behind salt deposits.  Animals, including buffalo, come along and lick the deposits.  Hence the name "Lick."  Some of the first European settlers were the French, so we have the word "French."  Put them together and we have the name French Lick.  Get it?  Good.

Now that we have that established, we can move on to the important stuff.

And yes, French Lick is the home of Larry Bird, the basketball legend who decided to go to that other university named Indiana after deciding that IU was just too big for his tastes.  Well, we can't all be perfect.

When one enters Springs Valley, one goes back into a different era in time.  Time slows here, the outside world loses a bit of its urgency, and the all-important Internet is suddenly not so all-encompassing. Life takes on a different meaning here in this valley.



We arrived at the French Lick Springs Hotel.

The first French Lick Springs Hotel was a wood frame hotel and was built by Dr. William Bowles in 1845.  Guests came from as far as a hundred miles away to come to the hotel and drink the "miracle waters" from the sulfur springs in the area.  A fire destroyed part of the hotel in 1897 and it was rebuilt using brick and was enlarged.

Tom Taggart, the mayor of Indianapolis, bought the property in 1901. 
Tom Taggart had connections in the political world and was able to use those connections to showcase the hotel.  He also made many upgrades to the hotel, adding marble floors and luxurious furnishings.  Mr. Taggart had two championship golf courses, the Pete Dye Course and the Donald Ross Course, designed for the property and started bottling the Pluto water for national sale.

Another draw to the valley was the gambling.  Though not legal, it was present at nearly every establishment in the valley.  It has been long rumored that notorious characters such as Al Capone, Diamond Jim Brady, and John Dillinger were frequent visitors to the area's hotels and casinos.

Other more reputable people like championship boxer Joe Louis were also drawn to the valley, but Mr. Louis was forced to stay at the Waddy Hotel, which exclusively served blacks.  In that time and place, the valley was segregated and that included the hotels.  Joe Louis may have been rich and famous, but he was not welcome to stay in the white hotels.

Mr. Taggart became the Democratic National Chairman and French Lick Springs became the unofficial headquarters of the Democratic National Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt rounded up support for the party's presidential nomination in the ballroom of the grand old hotel.

In 1917 Chef Perrin ran out of orange juice and in a burst of part desperation, part inspiration, he juiced some tomatoes and served his guests this new concoction.  The guests loved the tomato juice and the hotel had trouble keeping up with the demand for this new health drink.  In the early 1920s a branch factory was established in French Lick just to make and bottle tomato juice for the hotel.  Commercially canned tomato juice wasn't available for sale elsewhere until 1928.

Unlike West Baden Springs Hotel, French Lick Springs never stopped being a hotel, although the years did take its toll on this grand dame.  When Bill and Gayle Cook of Bloomington, Indiana stepped forward to save West Baden Springs, Bill Cook went ahead and restored French Lick Springs to its former glory as well.  Despite his dislike of gambling, Mr. Cook understood that bringing in a casino was essential for the continued survival of the hotels.

At the time, the laws in Indiana stipulated that only casinos that operated on water could exist in the state.  In order to meet the law, the casino was built next to French Lick Springs Hotel and a channel was dug around the building.  The channel was filled with water and the building was decorated to look like a riverboat.  Thus, the lawmakers' rules were "fulfilled," and French Lick had a casino.  Later, that law was changed and the moat was filled in and the riverboat details were removed.

It is hoped that the renovations of these two fine hotels, which are both on the National Register of Historical Places, will help to revitalize the towns of French Lick and West Baden and Springs Valley.

And now back to the present and the hotel.

We arrived in our room.

Our large room.
I measured the room (what, me anal?): it was about 19' x 15' with a 3'x 10' bay window.

We could have had a party in the bathroom.

I love this.  Can I stay here?

Even the closet door mirror is fancy.

This is nice.

The new passage to "Pluto's Alley", AKA, the bowling alley and arcades.

This passage was constructed in 2006 from solid bedrock.  This was created so that the guests could easily reach Pluto's Alley from the rest of the hotel.  

The main lobby of the hotel.
The gold leaf is real.

The grand stairs at French Lick.

On Friday I braved the 105 degree temperatures to drive up to West Baden Springs.

I later learned that we would be coming back here on Saturday for the Ladies' tour, so I will be combining the pictures and what I learned here.

The original hotel here was built in the 1800s by Dr. John Lane and was called the Mile Lick Inn.  He later changed the name of the inn and the nearby town to West Baden Springs.
Dr. Lane was inspired by the famous springs in Weisbaden, Germany and thought that the similar name would bring the worldly and upperclass visitors to his inn.

Dr. Lane was fiercely competitive with Dr. Bowles of French Lick Springs, and this spirit would continue on to the later owners of the two establishments.

When the Monon Railroad came to the valley in 1887, visitors were now able to easily come to the hotels and each hotel built a depot just steps from the entrance.

Lee Sinclair purchased the hotel in 1888 and he had big plans for the hotel.  Several improvements were made to the hotel, only to see those hopes go up in smoke when the hotel caught on fire in 1901.  Mr. Sinclair briefly thought of giving up until he heard that Tom Taggart was planning on expanding French Lick Springs.  Then Mr. Sinclair decided to rebuild West Baden Springs, this time in brick.  He also declared that the hotel would be rebuilt within one year.  Five hundred workmen worked ten hours a day, six days a week to get the job done.  They finished in eleven months.

Harrison Albright was the architect for this daunting task.

When Bill Cook helped restore West Baden Springs, someone suggested that the trees that obscured the view of the hotel be cut down.  Bill Cook emphatically said, "No, we do not cut down healthy trees."  

Our guide on Saturday said that they had lost several trees after the drought a couple of years ago.  They will likely lose more after this year's drought.

The roses look nice.

The original lobby of the hotel.
During the Jesuit years, this was a used as a chapel.

The atrium never fails to take my breath away.
The atrium is 100 feet high and 200 feet across.

Oliver Wescott, a suspension-bridge engineer, 
designed the dome.
He understood that the steel framework for the dome would expand and contract, depending upon the temperature.  The solution?  Placing the supports on ball bearings so they could move.

The atrium decor was originally much more simple, with two tones of brick color.  After Mr. Sinclair's death, his daughter, Lilian Sinclair set about renovating the atrium in 1917.  Her vision was to create a "Pompeian Court."  Twelve million one-inch marble mosaic tiles were laid on the floor at a cost of one cent, including labor, per tile.  The columns were covered in canvas and painted to replicate marble and the lower portions faced with Hauteville marble.  An upside-down palm tree was hung from the center of the dome.

Stained glass windows in the lobby.

The 1917 renovation was so costly that the Sinclairs were forced to sell out to Ed Ballard.  Mr. Ballard bought out the Sinclair family in 1922.  

Ed Ballard owned several circuses and it is thought that at one point he owned all the circuses in America except for the Ringling Brothers Circus.  A couple of his circuses wintered in West Baden Springs.  In  1918 the circus train was hit by an empty troop train (remember it was WWI) and the rear cars of the circus train caught fire.  Eighty show people were killed and 120 more were injured. This was known as "The Great Train Wreck" and to date is the worst circus accident in history.

So now you will understand why you will find circus themed memorabilia for sale at the various gift shops in the area.

The Great Depression Hit and even Ed Ballard couldn't keep the West Baden Springs Hotel afloat.  Finally, in 1932 he sold the hotel to the Jesuits for $1.
Even the mighty had fallen.

The Jesuits owned the property for about thirty years until they sold it to Northwood College in 1967.  The college operated out of the facility until it closed in 1983.  From that point on the property had several owners who attempted to bring it back to its former glory, but while they had the vision for the glory, they lacked the funds to bring it to fruition.

It wasn't until the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana purchased the property and Bill and Gayle Cook came on board that the grand dame was saved from sure destruction.

The original men's lounge, now the library.

The original "front office" across the lobby from the library.

The tile on the fireplace surround is much more plain in this room.

I'm braving the heat and heading out to the gardens now.

In its heyday, the hotel claimed to have four springs.
They were named Hygeia Spring, Apollo Spring, Sprudel Spring (which is somewhat redundant, given that sprudel means spring in German).
I have been unable to find the name of the fourth spring on the property.

Today only two of the spring structures remain.
The Jesuits saw no need for the springs and plugged them up.

The fountain in the garden has been restored.

Looking across the garden to the bowling alley.

Hygeia Spring Pavilion.

Lovely windows.

When the hotel was restored, they attempted to reopen the spring.
They were only able to find surface water.  It soon became apparent that it was cost-prohibitive to find the elusive Sprudel spring waters from ages past.

The drought has played havoc with the gardens.
Oddly enough, the gardeners have decided to water the grass and to let the flowers go to waste.

There's not enough water to help this grass in this heat, though.

Looking inside the sports pavilion.  I believe that billiards were set up in the front section and the bowling alley was in the back.  The building is now used for storage.  We learned on the tour that nothing will be done with the building until it can be raised six feet to get it up out of the flood plain.  Lick Creek runs nearby and has been know to flood the lower grounds.

Looking back towards the hotel.

St. Ignatius Cemetery.

At this point I've gotten used to the heat and I might as well climb the hill.

The Jesuit priests who died while serving here when West Baden was a seminary are buried on this hill overlooking the gardens.

Looking back at the sports pavilion.

Down the hill from the Jesuits' cemetery I found a water way.

The rear of the Hygeia Springs Pavilion.

The stone structure in the center of the roundabout was originally a fountain that stood in the center of the atrium.  There was also a dolphin fountain that stood in the center, but that disappeared sometime during the Jesuit years.

Lick Creek.

The rear of the Hygeia Springs Pavilion.

Another view of the former fountain.

Some of the surviving marble mosaics that adorn the floor of the atrium.

Remember, everything that looks like gold leaf really is.

I love these light fixtures.

It has been documented that this fireplace is covered in Rookwood tile from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Rookwood was a famous pottery company at the opening of the 20th century.  Today this fireplace is priceless.

The personification of the spring, Sprudel, sits on the rocks in the upper right hand corner.

And now it's time to head back to French Lick Springs Hotel.

The Pluto Pavilion was the original entrance to the hotel.

The newer Japanese Pond and Garden in the Lower Gardens.

The cones signify that there is wet paint ahead.

All about Thomas Taggart.

Across the street from the hotel is the former bottling plant for Pluto water.
At one time Pluto water was sent all over the world.
Now this plant makes plastic bottles for other manufacturers' products.

One of our stops on the Ladies' tour was the French Lick Museum.  They have the two original Pluto statues that formerly graced the roof of the Pluto Pavilion rooftop of the French Lick Hotel.  They were both originally painted red.

Pluto was chosen as the mascot for the French Lick Springs mineral waters as Pluto was the god of the underworld and guarded all the treasures of the earth: minerals, gold, gemstones,  and water.

The gardens from the conference and event center.

Pluto Springs Pavilion.

An historical marker.

This hotel stands on the site of the French Lick Fort Maintained as a government station as a protection from Indians until about about 1815.

Erected by the Lost River Chapter
Daughters of the American Revolution

World Famous Pluto Spring

While here take our Mineral Baths
 When NATURE WON'T Pluto will.


And now you know the secret of the waters.  They act as a laxative.  And from all accounts, they act quickly.  The waters were claimed to cure everything that you might imagine that might ail you.

There was a strong sulfuric smell coming from the spring.  I simply cannot imagine drinking this water.

The US government banned the sale of the water in the 1970s when they found trace amounts of lithium, a controlled substance, in the spring waters.

Despite the heat, this is an idyllic setting.  The trail beckons me.  I must follow. Or maybe that is the heat speaking to me?

An old stone bench.

A wooden door is partially hidden by the vines hanging over the wall.

Another well.

A date on the ledge reads 1907.  I think.  It was kind of hard to tell.

There is an air of mystery and magic about this place.

I brought with me a novel that was about West Baden and French Lick that had been written by a native Bloomington author Michael Koryta.  The novel is called So Cold the River and it is truly a page-turner. Mr. Koryta did his homework and reading the novel while in the valley adds to the ambiance and the mystique of the place.

If you are a fan of mysteries and/or ghost stories, then you must read this story.

I cannot resist the path.  I need to explore.  Who cares if it's 105 degrees outside?

Would I have found this if I had stayed inside?

Or these stairs?

Or this deer?

Well, that was enough of that.
I need water.
And not Pluto water.
Ice water.
Or beer.
I'm not picky.

The hotel from the rear.

Time to head back inside.

The inside pool.

The outside pool.

I later talked to a lady who had been at the pool all afternoon on Friday.
She had been lounging about, taking it easy, while I had been out and about and climbing stairs all afternoon.
She ended up getting sick from heat exhaustion.
I was fine, even with my asthma.

The landing leading to the stairs to the lower level.  I still think this wall isn't original.
The floor pattern just seems odd.

I wonder what they are trying to hide?

On Saturday evening a band congregated on the lawn outside our room.  They played a few songs before dispersing.

We had a wonderful time at the hotel and I hope to return.
Hopefully sooner than later.

The staff at both hotels and the townspeople were friendly and went out of their way to make our stay delightful and enjoyable.

If you ever are in the area and even if you are not able to stay in either of these fine hotels, you owe it to yourself to spend at least an afternoon touring the hotels and grounds and admiring the majesties of times past.

And no, as I find myself repeatedly telling people: I don't like to gamble and you don't have to enjoy gambling, or even set foot in the casino in order to have fun here.

At this point in time, the towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs still have a long way to go until they are on their feet again.  But thanks to the beneficence of the late Bill Cook, they are well on their way.

Little by little life is coming back to the valley and at some point the the powers that be will need  to realize that they have to reach into the 21st century and embrace the Internet.  For the rest of the world lives and breathes the Internet and we want to know what we are getting into before we get there.  Right now, Springs Valley is in an Internet black hole.  While that may be quaint, it is an economic hindrance to the future of the valley. 


Rosie Hawthorne said...

Thanks for posting this. Very interesting.

I have a question: How much deliberating did the council do?

Marilyn said...

Mr. P says enough to justify playing golf in 106 degree weather (what they registered at 3 pm on Friday afternoon).