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French Lick's amazing space

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Turn the Colosseum inside out, so that its classic facade faces inward. Make it so that its inner diameter forms a rotunda 200 feet across. Now pave the entire floor in patterns made with mosaic tiles. Let there be tier upon tier of windows and balconies, six courses in all, where the niches would have been. Crown it with a 100-foot-high domed roof untethered by any central support.

And, oh yes, build the whole thing using only the technology available a century ago.

Can't be done?

It already has been, ain the southern Indiana hamlet of West Baden, where the 1902 West Baden Springs Hotel has reopened against all odds.

At its zenith, the hotel was such an architectural marvel, and so exclusive, that tour guides from the Indiana Historical Society say it commanded twice the nightly rate of the Waldorf-Astoria. The cream of Victorian society came for the healing properties of its mineral springs -- and stayed for the illegal gambling that was an open secret in the town -- until the Great Depression put an end to the good times. By the 1990s, the former wonder had become an abandoned shell mired in red tape.

So to stand now in its restored grand rotunda, or atrium, and check into one of the finely furnished rooms that overlook it is to be twice awed: by the restoration's success and by the fact that the structure was ever built to begin with. The experience is equal parts soaring and intimate. I can't think of another space like it, not one that even comes close except perhaps for Rome's Pantheon, which measures 142 feet in diameter and 142 feet floor to ceiling -- and they won't let you spend the night in there.

By day, the 246-room hotel's interior is appointed with natural sunlight filtered through clear panels in the dome. This is the best time to appreciate the harmonic spacing of the Ionic columns that support the rotunda, count the windows and balconies between them, and admire the gold-leaf embellishments. Sculptures and reproduction furniture are arranged for conversation groups, where guests talk to one another in hushed tones. Sound carries surprisingly well in here. The live music that flowed from the atrium's grand piano found me in my room six floors above, even with the balcony doors closed.

By night, a pendant chandelier comes to light. The enormous fixture is round and segmented, much like the massive rosette windows of stained glass in Gothic cathedrals. In fact, suspended from the center of the dome, that's what this multihued light most reminds me of.

The glory days

Behind all the grandeur is a story that starts along the Buffalo Trace in a valley dubbed French Lick.

About a mile down the road from West Baden Springs Hotel stands another hotel, the French Lick Springs Hotel, in the neighboring village of French Lick.

The mineral content of the springs in the valley had people swearing that the waters would cure everything from alcoholism to old age. French Lick Springs Hotel was built in 1840 so folks would have a place to stay while taking the waters. Ten years later, a competitor, the Mile Lick Inn, opened for business on the site where the West Baden now stands.

Rivalries raged. Room rates rampaged. The Mile Lick changed its name. Both hotels were consumed by fire only to be rebuilt more grandly.

The French Lick hotel began bottling the stuff that bubbled from its main spring as Pluto Water. The West Baden answered with Sprudel Water. There was a direct rail line all the way from Chicago, and each hotel had its own station. Local historians say the two hotels, along with numerous ordinary lodgings for average Joes, created a destination so popular that the railroads were delivering more than a dozen passenger cars a day loaded with vacationers.

From the time the domed incarnation of West Baden Springs Hotel went up, though, West Baden was the star. It had extensive gardens, a bank, a stock brokerage, its own opera house, a swimming pavilion called a natatorium, and a double-decker pony and bicycle track.

Its crowning glory was the genius of architect Harrison Albright, who solved the considerable problems of the dome by designing it like an umbrella: sturdy spokes radiating from a center hub, suspending a skin of relatively lightweight materials.

Guides on the Indiana Historic Society's hotel tour say each of the dome's metal ribs rests on something very much like roller skates, hidden behind panels atop each rotunda column. The mechanism, they say, allows the rotunda to bear the weight of the dome while at the same time permitting the dome to expand and contract at a different rate than the building itself. They're actually two different structures that only give the illusion of being attached.

The idea was so solid that even after the hotel sank into obscurity, closed for good in the 1930s and became a Jesuit seminary, found itself turned into a private college later still and eventually sat empty, the dome stayed put.

Before the close of the Roaring '20s, the communities of French Lick and West Baden counted 30 hotels, 15 clubs and, historians say, nearly a score of casinos between them. French Lick Springs Hotel couldn't match West Baden's unique architecture, but the Beaux Arts belle with its long, lazy double porch was elegant in its own right. And it was powered by Thomas Taggart.

Taggart was an Irishman who immigrated to America, became mayor of Indianapolis, served as a member and eventually chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and ultimately was appointed to the U.S. Senate. He's the one who seized the opportunity to grandly rebuild French Lick Springs Hotel after it burned down.

But hard times found this hotel, too. After gambling was abolished once and for all in 1949, the heyday was over. French Lick Springs Hotel would pass through a series of owners, and suffer the double indignities of ham-fisted modernization and half-hearted renovation attempts before a historic preservation consortium -- with a hard-won casino license in hand -- stepped in for an honest-to-goodness restoration.

Together at last

Today, a new entity in the valley is spreading a broad canopy: French Lick Resort Casino. Under its shade, the two historic hotels that were rivals a century ago are now part of the same $382 million restoration and development effort. They share a central reservations number and signing privileges. French Lick's new full-service spa is already open. West Baden's will be any day now.

The 18 holes at the 1917 Donald Ross Course at French Lick have been fully restored. A second existing 18-hole golf course is being converted to a more challenging 9. And by spring 2008, a third set of links, the new 18-hole Pete Dye Course at French Lick, is scheduled to open.

But they're not kidding themselves. The hotels are grand, the spas plush, the courses challenging. There are fine-dining restaurants, pricey gift shops, billiard rooms, bars and swimming pools here now; and a new entertainment hall where nationally known stars take the stage.

Even with all that, they know it's not enough to really bring these hotels, and this valley, back from the brink permanently. However, the new casino's 42,000-square-foot gaming floor just might.

Maybe this time, the odds, and history itself, will work in French Lick's favor. Its cards, and its money, are on the table.

Getting there:

French Lick and West Baden are located in southern Indiana, about 60 miles northwest of Louisville, the nearest significant airport.

By air: Louisville International airport is served by the major carriers or their short-hop affiliates, with round-trips from Chicago going for about $150.

By car: From Chicago, the trip is some 290 miles each way if you take Interstate Highways 90 East/65 South to Indianapolis and pick up Indiana Highway 37 South to Indiana Highway 56. But there are lots of more scenic, less stressful routes.

Staying there:

• French Lick Springs Hotel: On a recent Friday night, I paid $149 for a standard king room in this 433-room hotel. But weekend nights in July could run $169-$249. The room was equipped with flat-screen TV and coffee service, but no fridge or safe.

• West Baden Springs Hotel: Although the hotel has 246 rooms and suites, and many overlook the atrium, only 40 have a balcony. I stayed in a balcony room on a recent Saturday night for $325. A flat-screen TV, mini fridge, safe and bathrobes came with the room. On July weekends, standard rooms with views of the grounds may go for $210 a night.

Common to both properties: A mandatory $13-per-night resort fee covers valet parking, admission to fitness center and pools, in-room high-speed Internet and the shuttle that runs between the two hotels every half-hour. Guests have signing privileges at both properties.

Dining around:

1875 Steakhouse in the French Lick Springs Hotel is the sort of place where reproduction leaded-glass windows pick up the light, and Republic of Tea iced tea is served from the bottle with a flourish, as if it were wine. The menu here leads people like me to assume the following logic: If the 8-ounce filet costs $43 anyway, I might as well spend a few more dollars and try the 32-ounce prime Wagyu long-bone rib eye for $52. (Yes, it was worth it.)

The hotel also has places to get coffee, ice cream and pizza. And the Power Plant Lounge features a wall of electrical switches, gauges and transformer boxes -- they don't work anymore, but they're more interesting than any game you might watch on its flat-screen TVs. In the walkway connecting the French Lick Springs Hotel to its casino is the Grand Colonnade Buffet, open for breakfast ($10), lunch ($13) and dinner ($20). In the casino itself, you can get a taco salad and iced tea for less than $10 at Diamond Jim's.

Prices on the Italian-themed menu at Sinclair's in the West Baden Springs Hotel range from $10-$14 for antipasto, $11-$13 for salads, $16-$25 for first courses, $34-$36 for fish courses, and $30-$47 for chicken and meat courses. The Cafe at Sinclair's serves breakfast and lunch. There's also a snack bar for coffee and ice cream. And the hotel's signature bar, Ballard's Lounge, is right in the domed atrium.

Golf:

In the rolling hills outside of town, the Donald Ross Course at French Lick, built in 1917, has been restored to the tune of $4.6 million. It's probably best known as the course where Walter Hagen won the 1924 PGA Championship. Rates are $110 on Saturday and Sunday, $75 the rest of the week, and include the cart.

A second golf course, the former Valley Links course adjacent to the French Lick Springs Hotel, is being converted from 18 holes of play to 9. It will reopen as the Tom Bendelow Course at French Lick, with a championship tee length of almost 3,500 yards. Also in the works in the hills above the hotels is a third set of links, the 18-hole Pete Dye Course at French Lick, expected to open in 2008.

Spa Services:

The spa at West Baden Springs Hotel was not yet open when I visited. But I did try the services at the renovated Spa at French Lick. There's adequate space in the shower and dressing areas, which are well stocked with towels and toiletries. And the lockers have electronic locks. The leaded-glass windows, best admired from the rattan-look seating in the lounge, are original to the building.

This spa's services are among the highest priced I've encountered in the Midwest, and that includes Chicago. A 50-minute sports massage is $140; a 25-minute reflexology session is $60. But there's a good reason for this. First and most fortunately, the property has attracted some gifted, caring therapists, and they're paid as staff employees with benefits -- in a climate where most massage practitioners are considered contract labor. Second, the massage tables are completely adjustable and can be customized for each guest and the treatment at hand.

For more on the hotels:

French Lick Resort Casino: 888-MY-HIDEAWAY; frenchlick.com.

Elsewhere in French Lick:

• The Beechwood Country Inn is a B&B with a history. It was once the home of one of the former, and most colorful, owners of the West Baden Springs Hotel. Room rates start at $129, and the restaurant is open to the public for fine dining at lunch and dinner. (812-936-9012; beechwoodin.com)

• French Lick Winery offers free tastings and serves a light menu, ranging $14-$17, of salads, pizza, pasta, desserts in its Vintage Cafe. (8331 W. State Road 56; 812-936-2293)

The area:

Southern Indiana has several attractions besides French Lick: Gasthoff Amish Village, the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, St. Meinrad Abbey, Huntingburg's League Stadium and several tour caves. For more on the area, Indiana Office of Tourism Development: 800-677-9800; in.gov/visitindiana.

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