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Long unused, nearly abandoned, overgrown with wild trees and underbrush, brutalized by vandalism and theft, surrounded by warnings that the structure and grounds are dangerous, a large section of an outer ring of rooms collapsed—the West Baden Springs Hotel, the dome in the valley, seemed poised in the early 1990s to be doomed to demolition by neglect.

The West Baden Springs Hotel was initially established as a rustic inn in 1855 by John Lane; expanded in the last decade of the nineteenth century by the Sinclair family; rebuilt as a domed building in 1902 by the Sinclair-Persise family following a 1901 fire; closed in the Great Depression on July 1, 1932, by the then-owner Ed Ballard, who acquired the hotel in 1923; survived more than 50 years as a college (West Baden College, 1934-1966; Northwood Institute, 1966-1985); declined during ten years of near abandonment; and reopened as a beautifully restored resort hotel on May 23, 2007.

The hotel became a U. S. Army hospital for recovering World War I soldiers for a brief period of about seven months during 1918-1919, under a U. S. government lease. The formal name was Army General Hospital Number 35, and it served as a military hospital from mid-October 1918 to early May 1919, housing hundreds of military staff members and more than two thousand recovering military patients.”

“The crowds that visit the Springs are extremely cosmopolitan in character. Ministers, doctors, lawyers, railway magnates, merchants and distinguished men and women in their communities, mingle in undistinguished prominence with sporting men, actors, and professional politicians.”

The close connection of major league baseball and boxing to the West Baden Springs Hotel was very special for the two sports and the hotel. During the years from the mid-1890s and into the 1920s, many of America’s major league, as well as minor and Negro league, teams and many of its preeminent, as well as rising, pugilists found an affinity for the facilities, charms, and character of the West Baden Springs Hotel.

Many of the guests who came to the West Baden Springs Hotel were attracted by the capricious lure of Dame Fortune they knew awaited them. Even though most guests stated that they came to the hotel for the "waters," especially before 1910, for many that was merely a rationalization to justify their time in the gaming rooms.

“Guests came to the West Baden Springs Hotel…to make use of the mineral springs,” especially in the early years, before the efficacy of the water treatment came into question. The hotel claimed that “The water from these marvelous springs ‘cured or helped cure’ over fifty ailments, ranging from ‘alcoholism and asthma’ to ‘sprains and sterility.’”

The many honors that the West Baden Springs Hotel and the larger resort have garnered since opening indicate that the public and others recognize the unique accomplishment represented by the restored hotels. That accomplishment can clearly be laid to the foresight of Indiana Landmarks and the dedication and gift of the Cook family, whose commitment to viable and functional historic preservation has been clearly stated by Bill Cook: “Our hope would be that people get a better understanding that preservation isn’t just to restore something but to preserve it with a function. It’s far better to demonstrate you can generate capital and make money on older buildings. You don’t need to tear them down.”

Content Copyright © 2013 James M. Vaughn