You may not have heard of the West Baden hotel, which is a shame. It was built in the town of West Baden Springs, near the better-known today French Lick, and was a luxury hotel to offer the wealthy leisure and access to the natural phenomena of the area — mineral springs considered medicinal.
Today’s travelogue is a bit different, since while I’ve visited West Baden, this isn’t that trip. It’s just the necessary backdrop.
A hotel had been on the West Baden site since 1852, and by the late 19th century there were seven railroads to handle the traffic into the tiny town. Several major league baseball teams used the site for spring training and all the most fashionable were seen there. And then in 1901, the hotel burned.
The new hotel would be fireproof, owner Lee Wiley Sinclair declared, and awesome enough to defeat competition from nearby French Lick. The design was was declared impossible by multiple engineers, but Sinclair found architect Harrison Albright to built the 200-foot-wide, 96-foot-tall unsupported dome, and construction was completed in just 277 whirlwind days. And it was amazing.
In those days, it was assumed that if you could afford to come to America [for vacation], you would go to French Lick. It was that well-known overseas.
— Chris Bundy, West Baden Springs: Legacy of Dreams
The atrium floor is made of two million tiles, laid by imported Italian artisans. The enormous fireplace is entirely wrapped by custom Rookwood featuring the West Baden waters mascot Sprudel, and today just the surround itself is valued in the millions. But the stock market crash of 1929 marked the death of the hotel; it nearly emptied overnight. In 1934 it was donated to the Jesuits for a seminary. It changed hands and uses several times — Larry Bird even used the enormous atrium for basketball clinics — and in 1995 it was sold for a mere $250,000.
Through local efforts and donations and enormous help from local billionaires Bill and Gayle Cook, the West Baden Springs Hotel reopened in 2007 in something approximating its original glory. It’s ranked in the top 25 US mainland hotels by Conde Nast, in the Top 10 Historic Hotels by AAA, and it’s both an Indiana Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
It’s a lovely day trip even if one doesn’t stay in the hotel, and I’d heard a couple of times about the angels discovered in the Compression Room — the small space where the massive trusses converge and lean together. One can only reach this space by climbing the outside of the dome and then down a ladder into the riveted room. But inside, on the eight steel walls, are painted a series of Renaissance-style angels.
No one knows where they came from, though one of the best guesses is the Italian tile artisans. Some of the angels are likely copied from Renaissance paintings on popular Italian postcards of the time, which lends weight to that idea. I’d always heard about the angels, but now I’ve finally seen them.
In 2005 and 2006 photographer Pamela Mougin recorded the angels and then virtually “restored” them from decades of neglect and vandalism. Her work is now on permanent display at the Irvington Historical Society in Indianapolis. (Irvington is a delightful little neighborhood named for Washington Irving, and it probably deserves a travelogue of its own.) They have her original images and restored creations on display as well as a recreation of the compression room.
Some traditions hold there are seven archangels (though many disagree as to who they are; only Gabriel and Michael are named in the canonical Bible). There are seven surviving angels in the octagonal room, and the eighth which stood behind the ladder descending into the room has been destroyed by weathering. Of course, it has thus attracted the supposition of representing Lucifer, who fell to become Satan. And in the spirit of Christmas Past, when ghost stories were a popular Christmas pastime, I present what I overheard while shamelessly eavesdropping from the next room while visiting the angel exhibit.
I heard one man at the Society speculate that the angel with a foot visible beneath the robes was intended to represent Gabriel, the only angel said to have walked on earth. (I have not been able to verify this statement in scripture.) The weathered angel is situated directly opposite the supposed Gabriel and is the only other with a hand held up, palm out to the viewer. Thus Gabriel and Lucifer are opposing forces. And, the man said in a low voice, if one puts a chair in the room between them, one can feel it growing hot with the conflict of energies.
I was skeptical; “Gabriel versus Lucifer” is not exactly what most theologians would present, and anyway these were merely photos of painted angels, not even the first generation of representation, so how could they carry on spiritual battle?
And then I remembered my Doctor Who: “That which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel.”
If you’d like to see the West Baden angels, they’re at the Irvington Historical Society and the exhibit admission is free.