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The history of the French Lick Resort: Overcoming crisis then and now

Crisis is a word that has been commonly used these past four months, but the six-letter word isn't a new adversity for the French Lick Resort.

FRENCH LICK, Ind. — Crisis. It's a word we've all heard a lot the past four months, and the employees of the huge French Lick Resort have not only heard it but felt the weight of that word. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a shutdown of the hotels and casino, plus massive furloughs, have had a ripple effect on the area economy. The resort is back, but not without change, and not without challenge.

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Crisis isn't a new thing for the resort. In fact, the hard times that have hit the resort through its storied history have not only been historic but have threatened the very survival of the place. From the French Lick Hotel to the opulent West Baden Springs Hotel (also part of the complex), this destination spot in the hills of southern Indiana has experienced and overcome the challenges.

"The past few months have been surreal, absolutely surreal," said marketing manager Steve Rondinaro. 

Credit: WTHR
Ariel view of atrium at West Baden Springs Hotel.

He should know. Rondinaro walked inside the vacant dome of the West Baden facility hearing only an eerie silence for a couple of months. No guests, no busy employees, no sounds of kids and grandkids running on the carpet of the place once deemed "the 8th Wonder of the World."

How did they come back to a place that is now returning to a new normal, even if guests are getting their temperatures checked, wearing wristbands and socially distancing?

They had a playbook of sorts, that went back to the end of the Civil War when the first iteration of the West Baden Hotel was built. 

It was preceded by a French Lick hotel in 1855 called the Mile Lick Inn. Going strong for nearly 50 years, a fire in 1901 destroyed nearly everything at the hotel. Luckily, all guests escaped unharmed.

By 1902, a beautiful hotel was finished by sheer manpower and technology; however, it didn't last long. World War I devastated the economy, and West Baden was used as a U.S. military hospital.

Renovation put the hotel in bankruptcy just in time for the Great Depression, yet another crisis that slammed the fortunes of both French Lick and West Baden.

After that, there were more challenging moves to overcome. The Jesuits bought West Baden and for 30 years, it was a seminary. Next, there was a shift to the Northwood Institute and an eventual disintegration of the facility that was so bad, a wall collapsed.

More crisis, but as in every other challenge, it was met by resilience and an insistence to keep the French Lick Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel not only in a position to survive but thrive. The hotels were bought, sold, renovated, and eventually left alone.

In 2005, the Cook Group Inc., led by Bill and Gayle Cook, purchased the properties, lobbied for and eventually placed a casino inside. The Cooks not only restored the grandeur but beat all expectations, drawing visitors from around the world and hosting Senior PGA and LPGA tournaments at the beautiful Pete Dye Course.

Credit: WTHR
Chuck at the Pete Dye Golf Course at the French Lick Resort.

Fast forward to now: With the help of Cook Medical, the hotels, including the new Valley Tower, are now open and operating new safety protocols to keep up with the latest challenge in this resort's colorful history.

The crisis isn't over. Rondarino said the Event Center's concert season is probably canceled, but there is still hope for the Christmas holidays and all the special events that draw generations of families. 

"I just would like us to share the place with folks and not have to worry about staying 6 feet away from each other. That would be ideal," Rondinaro said.

Many of the 1,200 employees are back to work as the future looks a little brighter for a place where crisis is just another challenge to add to the history books.

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