to help renovate two French Lick hotels
and Gayle Cook have dedicated
their share to preservation
Special to RoundAbout
FRENCH LICK, Ind. (September 2005) For too many years, Hoosiers
have loved the idea of the French Lick Springs Hotel and Spa more than
the actuality. It was our version of Michigans Grand Hotel on
Mackinac Island a vast out-of-the-way historic hotel, rocking
chairs on a wide veranda, vintage lobby but one whos
glory faded decades ago. We wanted to love it, but everything about
the place was frayed and substandard.
by Don Ward
Reality will soon catch up to our dreams. In April, a
$240 million project was announced that unites the ownership of the
French Lick resort, the West Baden Springs Hotel and a planned casino
to revive both the fabled resorts and the economy of several counties
in southern Indiana.
The deal sends an experienced team of visionaries, builders and managers
led by southern Indiana philanthropists and preservationists Bill and
Gayle Cook to create a top-flight destination resort, casino and conference
facility. Lauth Property Group of Indianapolis is the Cooks partner
in the joint venture. Officials from all three entities on Aug. 9 broke
ground on the Blue Sky Casino project, thus making the dream a reality.
CFC Inc., the real estate arm of parent company Cook Group Inc., which
includes Cooks medical device business, purchased the French Lick
hotel for the joint venture. CFCs half of the profits will be
donated to a new foundation that will fund economic growth programs,
education and historic preservation in southern Indiana.
Im sure someone would argue there are better charities,
says Cook, but I cant think of anything better than going
after history and trying to preserve it.
While the Blue Sky Casino, projected to open in 2007, is the economic
engine powering the development, the heart of venture lies in the ambitious
restoration of the grand but creaking French Lick hotel and the renovation
of West Baden Springs, re-introducing hotel rooms there for the first
time since 1932.
With the oldest part of the French Lick structure dating to 1902, the
sprawling yellow brick hotel with its inviting veranda hearkens to an
era of luxurious and unhurried vacationing. Early 20th century travelers
lingered for weeks to take the resorts mineral waters in
glasses, soaks, mudbaths and other spa treatments.
It was a place of leisure in a sense that modern Americans really
dont experience, says Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard,
the honorary chairman of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. The
restoration, he adds, is being led by folks for whom the gaming
is a tool, and not an end in itself, and thats why historic preservation
people are excited.
by Don Ward
the West Baden Springs Resort.
George Ridgway, restoration architect for both hotels,
says the interior public areas of French Lickthe lobby, the ballroom,
and the corridorswill be restored to original period style. Conrad
Schmitt Studios of Wisconsin, which restored the interior decorative
schemes at the West Baden Springs Hotel, the lobby at French Lick.
The interior of the famous spa will be renovated to include a fitness
center, Ridgway says. Bill Cook was thrilled to find a stained-glass
ceiling long hidden above dropped acoustical tile. He hopes to replace
the canvas awning over the main steps with a glass canopy similar to
the elegant entrance seen in historic postcards and photos of the hotel.
Even in the hotels 1920s heyday, the guestrooms were modestly
appointed, Ridgway says. People did not spend time in their rooms in
those pre-TV, pre-laptop days. The rooms have very high ceilings,
ornate plaster crown moldings, six- and seven-panel wood doors, very
appropriate for the era. Not so fitting for the modern era are
the bathrooms, where dated tile and fixtures (none original) will be
The hotel will stay open for guests throughout the phased renovation.
The restoration schedule means that after Labor Day, only 200 of 471
rooms will be available for overnight guests.
Of the exterior, Ridgway says, Anything in public view will be
restored. There used to be two domes on the east end of the building,
atop turrets. Theres talk of replacing those two to get it back
to the 1902 era.
When you look at it now, its a nice old brick hotel,
he continues. But a lot of the gingerbread and design elements
over these 100 years have been taken away, and the building looks pretty
When the work is complete, says Cook engineer Greg Blum, Youll
find a beautiful old hotel with modern amenities. Cook hired Benchmark
Hospitality International of Texas to manage the French Lick property
and, eventually, the West Baden Springs Hotel as well.
The French Lick restoration project is likely to claim one casualty,
though. The waiters quarters and bottling plant, where mineral
water was bottled under the Pluto label, pre-dates even the oldest section
of the hotel and is badly deteriorated. Rising from the curb of Hwy.
56 at the south end of the hotel, the building suffers mold and dry
rot. The roof collapsed last year, allowing water to cascade through
the already dilapidated structure, and the basement has flooded too
many times over the decades.
The bottling plant, Cook and Ridgway agree, doesnt meet standards
of economic feasibility and future use; they have asked the Historic
Hotels Preservation Commission for permission to demolish the building.
The resorts golf course does make the grade and the list for restoration.
The 18-hole Hill Course, designed by Scottish golf course architect
Donald Ross, in 1922 hosted the 1924 PGA Championship tournament.
Golf draws destination travelers beyond gaming fans, but the casino
license brings the project to life. The casino will stand near the French
Lick hotel, connected to the resort and a new parking garage. The Indiana
Gaming Commission granted the Blue Sky Casino a contract on June 23.
It will probably take 10 years to accomplish everything we want,
but when were finished, well have really left a mark,
says Steve Ferguson, chairman of Cook Group.
Baffled onlookers may ask, why is Bill Cook lavishing at least $120
million on the two hotels and casino and forgoing any profit? Cook himself
offers this answer: You take a coffin six feet long and three
feet wide, once you put yourself in there, you dont have room
for anything else.
Historic Landmarks Foundation joins fans of French Lick and West Baden
Springs in wishing Bill and Gayle Cooks days will be long upon
the earth while applauding Bills cant-take-it-with-you generosity
and his expansive vision for two of Indianas best-loved historic
As he said when he gazed at the French Lick Springs Hotel: Lets
hope it stays there 300 years.
This article was reprinted by permission from the May-June
issue of "Indiana Preservationist," a bimonthly publication
of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. Tom Wyman is the editor.
For more about this organization, visit: www.historiclandmarks.org.
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