French Lick has never looked better

| December 2, 2010
The ornate lobby at French Lick Springs Hotel.

The ornate lobby at French Lick Springs Hotel.

Forty-nine years ago we were married. We had the big white wedding with lots of bridesmaids and ushers and the “Trumpet Voluntary.” A champagne fountain was a new novelty. Mary Long and Frank Burke gave me private dancing lessons so I wouldn’t embarrass myself! And the band played on.

We were building a small house off Westport Road, so a long honeymoon was not in our budget. We decided to go to French Lick. Our friends Leslie Horton and Thorny Meyer were married the night before, and they were going there, too.

The smell of sulfur was about all I remembered. Brad remembered the waitresses dressed like Aunt Jemima and the delicious food. We could only afford to stay one day. As we checked out, we found out that Brad’s father had paid for the hotel as long as we wanted. We almost turned around and unpacked!

Fast forward 49 years. Our honeymoon memories were mentioned at a dinner party recently, and Michele Bowling, an executive with French Lick Resort, was one of the dinner guests and invited us back. She said things had changed in 49 years. Boy, was she right!

It turned out a crowd of Louisvillians were going on our anniversary to see the lighting of the tree and do a little gambling.,  Kathy Hensley and Phillip Koenig were the ring leaders. Jo Ann Gammon, Teri and Steve Bass, Debbie and Dan Ison, Fran and Kathy Yarmuth, Rachel and Doug Vetter, Debbie and Mark Koenig, Donna and Doug Richardson and John Scheidt were in the thick of things.

When we drove up to West Baden Springs Hotel, we were spellbound. It is just down the block from the French Lick Springs Hotel, and both are now owned by the same company.

They started out as small inns in 1845 near the “medicinal” springs. In 1887, the Monon Railroad came to this tiny sleepy little burg and life changed. The valley was now easy for patrons to visit from Chicago and beyond.

Tom Taggart, the mayor of Indianapolis, bought the property in 1901. He added luxurious furnishings and marble floors, designed two championship golf courses and started bottling Pluto Water for national sale. During this time, Taggart became chairman of the Democratic National Party, and French Lick Springs became the unofficial headquarters for the party.

It has hosted John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Joe Louis, Bing Crosby, The Trumans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Elizabeth Taylor the Reagans and Joe and Rose Kennedy.

The dome at West Baden Springs Hotel.

The dome at West Baden Springs Hotel.

It was here that famous chef Louis Perrin first created and served tomato juice!

An ad of the time advertised West Baden Mineral Springs as the “Carlsbad of America.”

It had Turkish, Russian, sulphur and mud baths, a swimming pool, golf course, opera house, orchestra, casino and you could hunt and fish on their 8,000 acres. Eventually a velodrome was added, a double-decker bicycle and pony track.

In 1891, the Baden hotel burned and a new one was built in one year.

The requirements were staggering.

“A rail spur allowed 45 cars of steel, 13 cars of stone, 187 cars of sand, 171 cars of gravel, 62 cars of cement, 26 cars of lime, 242 cars of cinders, 51 cars of lumber, 16 cars of red brick trimming and 450 cars of white brick, which were used in the construction.

The building is an octahedron, made up of 15 sections, each 60 feet long. The outer circumference was 1,010 feet. The 708 guest rooms each had the luxury of a private bath, hot and cold running water, steam heat, phones, clothes closets and electric lights.”

This massive structure is surmounted by a domed roof. It had a stock market room, a billiard and pool room, a movie theater and stables. There were and are charming gazebos in the gardens.

The first floor lobby was inlaid with 12 million marble mosaic tiles at a penny per tile. They got their money’s worth!

There is a mammoth fireplace surround by Rookwood that is to die for.

French Lick has two championship golf courses.

French Lick has two championship golf courses.

I could go on for hours and still not be next door at French Lick. It is so elegant and is all red, white and gold leaf. It has 443 rooms and suites and every amenity. Even your pets are welcome.

There are terraces, formal gardens, a ballroom, a steakhouse, a bowling alley, all sorts of restaurants, ice cream shops, coffee bars, a full service spa with 24 treatment rooms, fitness center, horseback and pony riding and bicycle rental, golf and high-end shopping (the Widow Gammon bought TWO hats), train rides and shuttle service to all amenities.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about the huge casino.,  Some were experienced and knew how to check in, get their card (to plug into the machines, so it knows who has been playing and then you get bonus gifts).

The group in French Lick.

The group in French Lick.

Some of us kept forgetting to do that, but we remembered to play. I started out on a penny slot. You’d be surprised how quick $20 goes. That was when the Widow taught me to push “10″ each time. That meant I was playing the 10 cent machine. My money was going in record time. And every now and then there was that melodic sound!

One of our girls was down a $1,000 playing at one of the tables. That made me nervous. Next thing I knew she was up $1,500!

We had fun. We lost, and some won. We got a free T-shirt. We learned a lot. We met new people. But most of all it was a good time. But next time, I am going early and walking around to see everything!

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Category: Partyline

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Carla Sue
A fixture in Louisville society, Carla Sue Broecker has been writing her weekly column for more than two decades.

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