Preserving history

Future casino proceeds
to help renovate two French Lick hotels

Bill and Gayle Cook have dedicated
their share to preservation

By Tom Wyman
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 Michigan’s Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island – a vast out-of-the-way historic hotel, rocking chairs on a wide veranda, vintage lobby – but one who’s glory faded decades ago. We wanted to love it, but everything about the place was frayed and substandard.

French Lick Springs Casino

Photos by Don Ward

The French Lick
Springs Resort.

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 Cook’s medical device business, purchased the French Lick hotel for the joint venture. CFC’s half of the profits will be donated to a new foundation that will fund economic growth programs, education and historic preservation in southern Indiana.
“I’m sure someone would argue there are better charities,” says Cook, “but I can’t 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 resort’s mineral waters – in glasses, soaks, mudbaths and other spa treatments.
“It was a place of leisure in a sense that modern Americans really don’t 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 that’s why historic preservation people are excited.”

Photos by Don Ward

Inside the West Baden Springs Resort.

George Ridgway, restoration architect for both hotels, says the interior public areas of French Lick—the lobby, the ballroom, and the corridors—will 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 hotel’s 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 replaced.
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. There’s talk of replacing those two to get it back to the 1902 era.”
“When you look at it now, it’s 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 austere.”
When the work is complete, says Cook engineer Greg Blum, “You’ll 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, doesn’t meet standards of economic feasibility and future use; they have asked the Historic Hotels Preservation Commission for permission to demolish the building.
The resort’s 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 we’re finished, we’ll 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 don’t have room for anything else.”
Historic Landmarks Foundation joins fans of French Lick and West Baden Springs in wishing Bill and Gayle Cook’s days will be long upon the earth while applauding Bill’s can’t-take-it-with-you generosity and his expansive vision for two of Indiana’s best-loved historic places.
As he said when he gazed at the French Lick Springs Hotel: “Let’s 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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