Restoring the Legend: The French Lick Springs Hotel

The program, which debuted March 5, 2007, traces the magnificent history of the hotel—from its days as a spa and unofficial headquarters for the National Democratic Party—to its decline after World War II—and finally to the multi-million dollar restoration that has recently been completed along with a casino, an additional golf course and full spa features.

Though the hotel itself dates back to 1845, even before the charter of the town of French Lick, it was the end of the 1800s before it grew to international prominence. Managed by Thomas Taggart in the early 1900s, the hotel became famous for its mineral spring Pluto Water and for its championship golf course, designed by Donald Ross. Taggart wanted to make the hotel a relaxing spa where people would stay for weeks at a time and return frequently.

The Pluto Water was rumored to be everything from a cure-all to a relaxation beverage. French Lick was the topic of special discussion at the annual session of the Indiana State Medical Society in 1903 where Dr. George Kahle reported that he examined 150 patients at French Lick and credited the waters in aiding everything from gastric function and appetite to gout, alcoholism, and even rheumatism. He stated that actually medical men at that time possessed no agents which could take the place of mineral water, according to History of the French Lick Springs Hotel by Richard Walter Haupt.

“In the early days, the rich and famous would come and they would vacation for a long time. They would stay a month—take a train to the Kentucky Derby and stay until the Indianapolis 500. There had always been a spa there and it was always a place people went to try to improve their health,” said co-producer Gino Brancolini.

Co-producer Ron Prickel notes that the hotel location was originally selected specifically because of the spring there and the “medicinal value” of the water. “There wasn’t really much in the way of medicine but it was rejuvenating. The Pluto Water was bottled and shipped all over the world. Their slogan was ‘If Nature Won’t, Pluto Will,’” Prickel said.

When Taggart owned the hotel, he decided that golf’s popularity was significant enough that it could be a draw for the hotel. When he invited Ross to design the course, Ross talked him into buying a farm on the rolling hills nearby to build the course there. The site became known as the “Hill Course” or “Upper Course” and has been restored to its original Ross design.

The hotel attracted famous people from politicians to movie stars. “Bing Crosby was there. Abbott and Costello did a big war bond drive there; the 1924 PGA tournament was there. In its heyday, the hotel had any amenity that was available in recreation at the time. The more off-color recreation was available off the hotel grounds,” Brancolini said.

Despite its reputation, the hotel was never officially used as a gambling hall, nor did gangster Al Capone ever stay there, according to records. Legend has it that Taggart met Capone on the hotel steps and turned the gangster away. Gambling and drinking were, however, available across the street and throughout “the valley” at the time.

The program devotes significant time to the hotel’s history, along with the years of work that went into the restoration.

The lobby and public areas have been returned to their former opulence, the producers said. In the process, it was discovered that under many layers of paint, all the columns were made using scagliola—a technique for producing plasterwork columns, sculptures, and other architectural elements that resemble marble. Although there are only a few people in the country who still work with scagliola, one happened to be working on the project and restored the columns. “That is one of the showpieces of the restoration,” Prickel said.

In the course of the restoration, workers found that they couldn’t account for the space on the original plans. They started digging through walls and found an old walk-in wall safe. A safecracker was brought in from Bloomington and then, “it was like a Geraldo moment when they opened it,” Brancolini said. “There were people standing waiting and waiting and the only thing in it was a light bulb and some scraps of paper.”

Painstaking attention was paid to detail in the restoration while also adding to the hotel. The Pluto gazebo and spring houses were restored, where visitors can still take a Pluto Water bath. In addition, the spa area was improved to include all modern amenities. The old conference center, where Roosevelt visited, has been turned into a buffet restaurant and a new conference center for larger meetings has been added with a walkway to the casino.

Prickel and Brancolini said viewers may be in awe of the extreme attention that was paid to detail in the restoration. “It’s something someone could have done, restored it, and it wouldn’t have been as elaborate. But this was done right,” Prickel said. “It was done because the people involved wanted it done well,” Brancolini added. “The goal is to make it the premiere resort area in the Midwest and maybe the country. They have put a lot of effort to return it to the grandeur they once had.”

“I think when people watch this program, they will come away with an appreciation for what an important recreational area this was in the past and what an important area it will soon become. It will turn that community around, there’s no doubt. It’s been fascinating to watch.”