French Lick Springs Hotel
Located in the Springs Valley area of Orange County, the French Lick Springs Hotel helped make the region a destination for those in search of either mineral waters or casinos or, more likely, a combination of the two. The Springs Valley was rich with salt deposits and mineral springs as early as 1778. By the 1830s, the health benefits of “taking the waters” was commonly known. Other resorts emerged in the Valley due to the popularity of the waters but by the turn of the century, gambling had become a second powerful draw.
The first hotel was constructed on the property by Doctor William Bowles c. 1845. From 1846-1855, Bowles leased the hotel to John Lane who was a patent medicine seller from New York. Lane started an advertising campaign to lure people to the Valley for its health benefits. Bowles continued the advertising when he resumed control of the hotel from 1855 until his death in 1884 when his heirs sold the hotel and springs to Hiram Wells and James Andrews. In 1887, they sold the property to the French Lick Springs Company. From the mid-1880s until the turn of the
century, a variety of renovations took place on the grounds of the French Lick Springs Hotel including the addition of bowling alleys, croquet pitch, and a ballroom. The grounds were wired for electricity in 1888, and the hotel staff was expanded to include a doctor, photographer, barber. and a band. There were more improvements the following year, the first time the hotel was open all year.
Despite the arrival of the railroad in 1888 and the series of improvements to the facilities, the optimism of life in the Valley was not to last. In 1897, the springs stopped flowing and the main hotel building burned. Consequently, the board of the French Lick Springs Hotel was looking to sell. Thomas Taggart, then mayor of Indianapolis, had experience as a hotel proprietor and found three partners to purchase the hotel. They hired W. Homer Floyd, a Terre Haute architect, to design the new facility in 1901. Placed within the rustic landscape of the Springs Valley, the 471-room French Lick Springs Hotel stood out with later additions rising anywhere from 2 to 7 stories. The veranda was added in 1902 and major remodeling campaigns occurred in 1910-1911 and up until 1925. Fortunately, there are unifying features of the building that remained the same through all of the phases of construction: the smooth yellow brick, the similar proportions, and the consistent roof line. The ornate detailing, inside and out, conveyed the luxuriousness of the hotel.
The grounds surrounding the hotel were impressive. There are two golf courses and lavishly landscaped gardens. The older of the two courses is known as the Valley Golf Course. It began in 1897 as a 3-hole course. Taggart had the course expanded c. 1907 to 18 holes by Scottish-American architect Thomas Bendelow. The other course, the Hill Golf Course, was designed by noted golf course architect Donald Ross in 1920. Located about two miles from the hotel, this 18-hole course has undergone only minor changes since its construction. There are three distinct gardens surrounding the hotel including a Japanese garden, a fresh water spring garden, and a formal garden. Sometime during Thomas Taggart’s ownership but prior to 1908, a two-story casino was built on the grounds. After 1908 gambling was moved to the Brown’s Hotel that was located across the street from French Lick. There were other buildings on the grounds including spring houses, a power plant, a water bottling plant, and a laundry.
Thomas Taggart bought out his three partners in 1905, and it remained in the Taggart family until his son, Thomas Douglas, sold it in 1946 to a company out of New York. However, during the Taggart reign, the hotel flourished. It was the place to be seen during the ‘20s and 30s. He had strong political ties and intentionally invited politicians and reporters to stay at the hotel. The hotel also sold the mineral water up until 1927. In 1919, French Lick Springs sold over $1.2 million worth of mineral water. Sales dropped with the advent of the Depression and never recovered after World War II. By 1929, the French Lick Springs Hotel encompassed 4000 acres and was worth almost $2 million. The resort was able to whether the Depression due to Thomas Douglas Taggart’s effort to increase advertising and specifically target conventions and golf.
The French Lick Springs Hotel continues to function as a resort hotel and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.