Exit Frames

Lee Wiley Sinclair
West Baden Springs Hotel

A Visualization of the West Baden Springs Hotel

1836 - Birth

Lee Wiley Sinclair was born on February 18th in Putnam County, Indiana, son of Isaac Patterson Sinclair and his wife, America Lawson Martin Sinclair.   (Family Information.)   He spent most of his childhood living in a brick house that his father built.

1855 - First Hotel Built
Dr. John A. Lane built and opened Mile Lick Inn in Mile Lick, a mile from French Lick, Indiana. Dr. Lane renamed Mile Lick to West Baden after visiting Weisbaden, Germany, another spa area with mineral springs. Mile Lick Inn became known as West Baden Hotel.

1858 - Marriage

Lee Wiley Sinclair married Ann Eliza Brandt on May 4th, in Putnam County, Indiana. During their marriage, various relatives of Ann Eliza lived with them.

1867 - Growth

Sinclair built the largest woolen mill in southern Indiana in the town of Salem. It was 3 1/2 stories high. Sinclair expanded his holdings to another textile mill in Chicago and a department store in Salem.

Ann Eliza Brandt Sinclair died May 8, 1873.

1874 - Second Marriage

Lee Wiley Sinclair married Caroline (Caddy) Persise on June 15th in Washington County, Indiana.

1875 - A Child, Lillian

Sinclair's only child, Lillian, is born on July 8th.

After 1880 - Banker

Sinclair became president of the Bank of Salem in Salem, Indiana. He later opened a bank in the West Baden Springs Hotel.

1883 - FIRE !!

Sinclair's main woolen factory in Salem was destroyed by fire on the evening of Dec. 4-5; a loss estimated at $80,000.

1887 - Easy Access

The railroad came to West Baden / French Lick. This opened up the area to an ever growing number of visitors to the hotel-resorts.

1887 - 1889

Sinclair served a term in the Indiana House of Representatives.

1888 - Sinclair Buys Original Hotel

Lee Wiley Sinclair, having visited the hotel as a guest, saw the opportunity it afforded and purchased controlling interest in the West Baden Hotel. He changed its name to West Baden Springs Hotel, presumably to emphasize the fact that the hotel offered mineral springs.
  • Mineral waters from the springs were promoted as a cure for a multitude of ailments.
  • Sinclair made the hotel into a world-class resort and spa with 500 rooms, each of which was electrically lit and steam heated. A unique double-decker bicycle and pony-cart track was built. This, and the several medicinal springs were great attractions.

Sinclair added an Opera House to the hotel. (Remember - this was before radio, movies and television.)

Sinclair added a Casino to the hotel.

1901 - FIRE !!

At 1:30 a.m. on June 14, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the hotel, totally consuming, in about 90 minutes, the rambling wood-frame building which was valued at $500,000. By dawn, there was nothing but smoking ashes.
  • Miraculously, although there were over 400 people in the hotel on the night of the fire, no one was injured. (Two long time canine residents were lost, however.)
  • Sinclair resolved to rebuild, within a year, a fireproof hotel that was bigger and better than the first.
  • West Virginia architect, Harrison Albright, contracted with Sinclair to build the largest, free-span dome in the world for $414,000, after other architects rejected the 200-foot diameter dome concept as an impossibility. Albright also worked with a deadline, and had agreed to forfeit $100 a day for every day construction continued over 200 days.
  • The first brick was laid on October 15, 1901.

1902 - The Eighth Architectural Wonder of the World is Built

Sinclair moved into his apartment in the hotel one year to the day after the fire. The hotel began receiving guests on September 15.

West Baden Springs Hotel was formally christened on April 16. The governor of Indiana was the chief speaker at the opening ceremonies held for dignitaries.

1911 - Lillian Weds
On October 5th, Lillian Sinclair married Charles Barton Rexford.

1916 - Lee Wiley Sinclair Dies

Hon. Lee Wiley Sinclair died on September 7th at the age of 80 and lay in state in the Grand Atrium of his hotel. 1,500 people attended the funeral services on Sunday, September 10th.
  • On Monday, September 11th, a special train carried the remains and the funeral party to Louisville.
  • Burial was at Cave Hill, Louisville.
  • A family mausoleum at Crown Hill, Salem, Indiana now holds the remains of Mr. Sinclair, his wife and daughter.
  • In addition to being a bank president and hotel owner, Sinclair had also owned a woolen mill, a textile factory, been a state representative, a soldier in the Civil War, and a Mason.
  • His daughter Lillian and her husband Charles Rexford became the owners of the hotel.

1916-1917 - Renovation

The Rexfords did major renovation to the hotel, mainly based upon Greco-Roman design.
  • Italian craftsmen installed 12 million one-inch squares of marble [terrazzo tile] on the atrium floor [31,416 square feet].
  • Marble wainscoting was installed on the walls of the atrium.
  • Four large statues were placed in the atrium. The statues are copies of Second Century Roman works in the Vatican collection. It is not known who sculpted either set of statues. The four statues in the West Baden Springs Hotel atrium are based upon mythological characters: Apollo Musagetes, Thalia, Calliope, and Clio. Apollo is the god of manly youth and beauty, poetry, music, oracles, and healing. He was the leader of the nine muses. The three remaining stautes are three of these muses ... Thalia is the muse of comedy and pastoral poetry. Calliope is the muse of eloquence and heroic poetry. Clio is the muse of history.
  • The 24 six-story columns were covered in canvas and painted to resemble marble.
  • The huge fireplace in the atrium was refaced by Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati, Ohio. (Today this fireplace is considered to be priceless.)
  • Marble benches, specially-designed settees, marble tops for tables and lamps with Tiffany globes were ordered. Eight large and eight small urns, planted with palm trees and ferns, were placed in the atrium under the great dome, which was covered in canvas panels decorated with a flaming-torch design.
  • The large, sunken garden was added and the Angel Fountain was installed as the focal point of the garden.
  • The Seal Fountain was moved from the Grand Atrium to the driveway in front of the hotel.
  • The Grand Veranda that wrapped around one-quarter of the building was built.
  • New brick spring houses were built to replace the former wooden structures.
  • Without informing Lillian, Charles took a loan from Edward Ballard, a former protege of her father, to finance the renovations.

1918 - Hospital

America was at war.
  • The hotel became U.S. Government Hospital No. 35 during World War I.
  • Without paying clientele, income waned.
  • Charles was forced to tell Lillian of the loan from Ed Ballard.
  • The Rexford marriage ended in divorce.
  • Lillian fell in love with a wounded soldier named Lt. Harold Cooper whom she met in the hotel-turned-hospital.

The hospital was no longer needed and the hotel became a luxury resort/spa once again.

1923 - Sold to Ballard

Lillian, having failed to repay her loan from Ed Ballard, sold him the hotel for one million dollars.
  • Ed Ballard, born June 28, 1874, left school in the fourth grade to become a pin setter at West Baden Springs Hotel bowling alley.
  • Lee Sinclair took a liking to him and helped him prosper.
  • Ballard amassed a fortune buying and managing casinos in Springs Valley.
  • He owned several circuses and backed a number of Broadway shows including "New Faces," which introduced Henry Fonda and Imogene Coca.
  • Sometime after the sale, Lillian Sinclair married Lt. Harold Cooper.

Caroline (Caddy) Persise Sinclair died Nov 22. She is interred in the family mausoleum at Crown Hill Cemetery, Salem, IN.

1929 - Stock Market Crash

The stock market crashed on October 29 and plunged the nation into the Great Depression. Many guests of the hotel departed immediately; within four days of the crash the hotel was virtually empty.

1932 - The Hotel Closes

The economy forced Ballard to close the hotel on June 30. He tried valliantly to keep it open after the stock market crash, but in 1932 was forced to close for the last time.

1934 - Sold for a dollar

Ballard sold the hotel to the Jesuits for one dollar.
  • The order of Catholic priests reopened the hotel as a seminary known as West Baden College.
  • The Jesuits removed many of the adornments on the hotel, which they deemed too elaborate for their simple tastes.
  • Changes made by the Jesuits included stopping up the various springs with cement and rocks, (Number 7 spring was filled with stone and capped with cement squares,) a result of the Jesuits’ displeasure with the "mystical waters from Sprudel’s hand." The statues in the atrium were replaced by a simple statue of Jesus and images of Jesus were added to the stained glass in the entryways.

1936 - Ballard Dies

Robert Alexander, a former business partner, shot Ballard to death in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on November 6. Ballard lay in state under the dome of his former hotel. He was 52 years old.

The Jesuits apparently decided the hotel was too ornate for their tastes and removed the four five-story towers, which gave the hotel its palace-like effect.

1949 - Lillian Dies
Lillian S. Sinclair Rexford Cooper died August 16th. She was interred in the family mausoleum at Crown Hill Cemetery, Salem, IN.

1964 - Jesuits move out

The Jesuits closed the college and moved to Chicago, Illinois in June.

The hotel was purchased at an auction by Mr. and Mrs. Macauley Whiting of Midland, Michigan on November 2.

1967 - New life as a college

The Whitings donated the facility to the Northwood Institute, Michigan, to be used as their Indiana campus.

The former hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places while under the ownership of Northwood Institute.

1983 - The College Moves Out

Northwood Institute closed the Indiana campus at the end of the academic school year, and the hotel has been vacant since that time.

1985 - Sold Again

H. Eugene MacDonald brought the hotel and sold the property in a sale-leaseback package to Marlin Properties of Los Angeles, a historical renovation firm.
  • Marlin Properties made some improvements and damaging changes to the building.
  • The firm goes bankrupt, leaving the property entangled in litigation for years. Neglect leads to deterioration of the building and grounds.

1987 - Glory

The hotel was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

1991 - Neglected

A section of the outside wall collapsed due to a build up of ice on the roof and other structural defects.

1992-1993 - Rescued!

The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana spent $200,000 to make emergency repairs to stabilize the collapsed wall and stave off further deterioration even though they did not own the building.

Minnesota Investment Partners purchased the hotel from a Los Angeles bankruptcy court receiver for $500,000 which was provided by Grand Casinos, Inc.

Grand Casinos lobbied to amend the Indiana State law to allow riverboat gambling on a body of water it proposed to build on the hotel property.
  • The General Assembly failed to enact the "boat on a moat" legislation, which would have allowed a floating casino on the hotel grounds.
  • Grand Casinos announced it would sell the hotel for $800,000.

The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana purchased the hotel for $250,000, which was contributed by an anonymous donor.
  • Cook Group Inc., a corporate benefactor, agreed to invest millions in a partial restoration project.
    • Bill Cook, founder of the Cook Group Inc., is a native of Canton, IL and graduated from Northwestern University in 1953 with degrees in physics and biology.
  • Restoration began in late June with Pritchett Brothers Inc., employed to do the work.
  • In August the Historic Landmarks Foundation started 50-minute tours through the property with the proceeds going toward the restoration for the hotel.
  • The restored double-arch entryway, labeled "West Baden Springs--the Carlsbad of America," was re-lit for the first time in decades. The entire town turned out to celebrate.

Cook Group Inc. continued its commitment to the restoration of the hotel, although it was evident that more money would be needed to continue the project.

1998 - Celebrations and New Towers

The partial restoration of the facilities, which had now reached $29 million, was celebrated with a variety of special events.
  • The Nocturne, a $150-a-ticket benefit gala, was held on October 10.
  • On October 24, the four towers, removed by the Jesuits, were replaced by replica five-story towers lifted into place by a Sikorsky sky crane helicopter.

I, (J.L. McKenzie), discovered in March that my great-great grandmother McKenzie's maiden name was Martha Ann Sinclair. Martha was the wife of James McKinzie and the mother of Lee Wiley McKenzie. (Lee Wiley changed the spelling.)

I made some wonderful genealogical discoveries in 2001.
  • In April, I became aware of the accomplishments of my great-great grandmother's brother, Lee Wiley Sinclair. I began searching the Internet for information and found a wealth of web sites relating to the West Baden Springs Hotel.
  • In May, I created a table of contents so that others could easily find the web pages I took weeks to locate. Then I added the table of contents to my web site.
  • In June, I flew to Illinois, and my Mom and I took a road trip to West Baden Springs!!
    • We spent five days in Indiana. We stayed at the French Lick Springs Resort while we explored the area. We took two tours of theWest Baden Springs Hotel (my photos), and went back again at night to see it against the stars. We drove to the highest spot we could find so we could look down on the view of the hotel. We also made trips to visit the Court Houses and libraries in Orange and Washington Counties and discovered many genealogical treasures. The people we encountered were wonderful to us and we owe them a debt of thanks for the kindness they showed and the help they offered to us.
    • We drove to Salem, Indiana, and took photographs at the Crown Hill Cemetery where Lee Wiley Sinclair, his second wife, Caroline (Caddie) Percise Sinclair, and their dautgter, Lillian Sinclair Rexford Cooper are buried.
    • Then we headed north and visited the "Sinclair House" Lee Wiley Sinclair grew up in Putnam County. The people who own it now are restoring it and use it as an Antique Shop. If you visit there, be sure to ask Dave and Diane to show you the spring house.
    • From there, we drove north again to Cloverdale Cemetery, where his parents, grandparents and many others of his relatives are buried. (If this sounds strange to you, I'd guess you haven't become interested in genealogy.)

Gold Bar

To the West Baden Springs Hotel Page
To the Family Documents Index


"A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for.
Sail out to sea and do new things."
--- Grace Hopper

Exit frames