The West Baden Springs Hotel, a southern Indiana landmark that drew the famous and infamous before closing its guest register 75 years ago, has formally reopened as a refurbished resort eager to draw gamblers and other visitors.
Following a ribbon-cutting ceremony that capped a $90 million, nearly two-year restoration, the first guest to check in when the doors opened May 23 was Betty Oakley, the daughter of a former hotel gardener.
"When they closed it, I told Dad someone would come along with a lot of money and reopen it. He said, 'Not in my lifetime,'" said Oakley. "If he were here today and saw this, he would be speechless."
The hotel - about 50 miles northwest of Louisville, Ky. - features what was once the world's largest free-span dome, soaring 110 feet above the atrium floor. Six circular stories contain 246 rooms.
"This is the grandest, most significant historic preservation project in the history of this state," said Marsh Davis, president of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, which had worked since 1991 to save the building.
During their 1920s peak, the West Baden hotel competed with the French Lick Springs Hotel a mile away for well-to-do and celebrity guests, including Gen. John J. Pershing and Al Capone. National League baseball teams sometimes held spring training at the hotels in the first two decades of the 20th century. The 1929 stock market crash dried up business and it closed as a hotel in 1932. Two years later, it was sold for $1 to a Catholic religious order that used it as a seminary until the 1960s.
"We grew up hearing grand stories from our parents and our grandparents about this hotel," Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman said. "Well, today marks the beginning of a new era, and new memories will be made. We're once again able to enjoy this treasure in southern Indiana and experience what drew all those people here more than 100 years ago."
Restoration of the two hotels was part of the lauching of the $382 million French Lick Resort Casino complex, which is aimed at drawing tourists to the area about 40 miles south of Bloomington.
The West Baden hotel's reopening was eagerly awaited by local residents who once feared the structure, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, would collapse from neglect.
Barry Wininger, a member of the French Lick Town Council, said residents welcomed the investment and the additional visitors.
"Those are all just bonuses to the people of French Lick and West Baden being able to have an upbeat spirit of what the future is going to bring," he said.