While getting ready for a much-needed massage at the Spa at French Lick Springs Hotel, I asked my therapist, Lisa, about the namesake springs. “You mean Pluto Spring?” she said. She pointed down the hall. “The bath is there, if you’d like to try it.”
Named for the mineral salts once mined in this valley southwest of Indianpolis, Indiana, French Lick became of the focus of spa travel in the United States in the late 1800s, thanks to its two spacious resorts with mineral springs. Less than a mile apart in the same spring-blessed valley, the French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel competed for customers by offering a setting rivaling the elegance of European spa destinations.
Modeled on Baden-Baden in Germany, West Baden Springs, opened in 1855, adopted a Germanic-looking imp, Sprudel, as the mascot for its spring water. Rival French Lick Springs used the devilish Roman god of the underworld as its pitchman.
The Power of Pluto
One of three springs once available to guests at the French Lick Springs Hotel, Pluto Spring is best identified with Pluto Water. Part “cure-all,” part advertisement for the health resort that welcomed its first guests in 1845, Pluto Water was exported around the United States from a bottling plant at French Lick.
By 1905, French Lick Springs Hotel became a sprawling complex, with a parade of famous guests over the decades, from Ava Lowle Willing, who divorced John Jacob Astor IV in 1909, to Howard Hughes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Trains ran daily between Chicago and French Lick, making it a socialite destination and a favorite getaway for political party powwows.
On the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel is distinctly American, an imposing building of buff yellow “French Lick brick.” Inside its doors, the marbled columns and walls are an illusion, using a faux textured marbling technique called scagliola that imparts an elegance you’d swear was marble. The Italian mosaic floors are real. From this grand lobby, guests move on to the hotel’s dining areas, the casino, their guest rooms, or the spa.
Lisa, a native of St. Augustine, Florida – a place where we’d both sampled the Fountain of Youth, an artesian well said to have curative powers – filled me in on how Pluto Springs worked. “People would come to French Lick, dip a dipper into Pluto Spring for a drink, then walk through the gardens slowly, carrying a cane,” she said. “There were strategically placed outhouses that people whould have to rush to. You’d place the cane on the outhouse door when you were using it, so other people wouldn’t rush there in vain. When Pluto said go, you went!”
The Pluto Bath remains one of the spa’s regular treatments. “Today, a rare few individuals take a sip from the water of the bath, and we have a bathroom strategically placed nearby for that purpose,” said Lisa. Bottled until 1971, when the FDA made lithium a controlled substance (the water is high in natural lithium) and banned the sale of Pluto Water, the bottled water can still be found, unopened, in some of the region’s antique stores.
Serenity with Sprudel
When the original West Baden Springs Hotel burned to the ground in 1901, a new hotel rose in less than a year. Opening in 1902, it was a fanciful idea that “couldn’t be done” until a bridge engineer figured out how. The “Eighth Wonder of the World,” as the press called it, featured a massive domed atrium – 600 feet around, 100 feet tall – as its center. Guest rooms encircle it. Filled with delicate details, the hotel is a monument to historic preservation.
On a history tour, we orbit the hotel’s interior. Compass directions appear in the carpet design – “you’ll always know where you are if you watch the floor,” said our guide – and peacock-colored light fixtures shimmer at the top of the dome. An elegant billiards room and a speakeasy-style bar have the feel of sets in a history museum. Sprudel peeks out from a pastoral scene above the atrium’s fireplace.
Four mineral springs tempted visitors to the hotel, where they would take mineral baths and drink of the “healing waters.” Sprudel was the last of the springs to be found, as it bubbled up in the middle of French Lick Creek. Within five years of the hotel opening, the water was bottled and shipped around the United States. But the 1929 stock market crash brought the era of opulence to a screeching halt.
In 1934, the hotel was sold to the Jesuits for a dollar, and they turned it into a private college. Abandoned for more than a decade, the building was literally falling apart when Indiana Landmarks purchased it in 1996, funded by an anonymous donor. More than $32 million in repairs were contributed. But not until casino gaming was approved could the nonprofit find a buyer for the restored landmark.
Although the Jesuits had capped three of the four springs on the property, they couldn’t cap Sprudel Springs. Reopening in 2007 – for the first time since 1932 – the West Baden Springs Hotel harkens back to its roots with The Spa at West Baden, named the “Best Luxury Hotel Spa” twice in recent years. The two-level layout includes a Natorium, an indoor swimming pool beneath the building. The skin-softening West Baden Signature Sprudel Bath remains one of the most popular, and least costly, of the spa treatments.
Noting the inscription on the archway proclaiming “West Baden Springs — The Carlsbad of America,” I had to ask our guide. “Why Carlsbad?” I asked, thinking of the famous cave. “It was a grand European spa of the time,” he said, “the ‘in’ place in Bohemia.” Under a new name, it remains so today. A century ago, Americans “took the waters” too, but most of the famed mineral spring destinations have faded into memory. At French Lick, it still feels like the Gilded Age.
Visiting French Lick
Both French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel are owned and managed by French Lick Resort. The hotels are a mile apart, close enough to walk between on dedicated pathways through the gardens, or you can use a free shuttle between them. The compact historic community has many arts and antique shops. Golfers enjoy easy access to the Pete Dye Course at French Lick and Valley Links.
Summer is the busy season, but both resorts are open year-round. Book spa appointments, especially soaks in the spring-fed baths, well in advance.