Sunday, February 25, 2007

French Lick

Brenda and I spent a night at the newly-renovated French Lick Hotel in French Lick, Indiana last weekend. All I can say is, thank God for wealthy investors who are also passionate about historic preservation. The French Lick Hotel cost millions to refurbish and it is truly magnificent. The lobby features vaulted ceilings, ornate plaster cornices and intricate mosaic floors. The rooms are beautifully appointed with poster beds, pewter bathroom fixtures, internet via the t.v. screen (and the most comfortable mattress I've ever slept on!) The hotel also offers a world class 27,000 square foot spa, a new pool complex, a bowling alley, shops and restaurants. It has two golf courses and let us not forget, the French Lick Casino (which hotel guests reach by way of an enclosed walkway), now the largest casino in Indiana.

Not only that but in May, a second hotel, the West Baden Springs , will open one mile down the road. From the outside, it looks to be even more spectacular than the French Lick.

The investors who poured their dollars into the two historic hotels and the casino hope to bring back the glory days of this area, which was once the premiere resort of the Midwest when actors and athletes, politicians and other members of high society from across the country poured in by railroad cars-ful.

You might wonder what the draw was? After all, French Lick is located more or less in the middle of nowhere so what would cause people to flock there? The answer is: the springs. French Lick bottled its spring water as Pluto Water and made claims that it cured all manner of ailments from alcoholism to diabetes, from hives to constipation, from indigestion to sterility.

The first hotel at French Lick was built in 1844-45. Of course, it wasn't the grand edifice that came later. The owner simply wanted to capitalize on the growing number of travelers utilizing the Buffalo Trace, a natural road created by buffalo migrations (the buffalo, also being drawn by the abundant water from the ever-flowing springs). In 1901, the hotel was bought by Tom Taggart, the colorful former Mayor of Indianapolis and head of the Hoosier Democratic machine. He embarked upon extensive improvements to the hotel, including elegant renovations to the lobby and other public rooms, wide porches, two 18-hole golf courses and expanded size by the addition of new wings. By now, millions of bottles of Pluto Water were being sold across the U.S. Tom Taggart put a picture on the hotel on the label to further market his resort.

And in the 1920's, another enticement brought people to French Lick - gambling. As more casinos were opened, French Lick became known as the "Las Vegas of the Midwest". French Lick drew high rollers like Diamond Jim Brady and Al Capone. The Roaring Twenties did roar in French Lick and its heyday continued clear up until the start of World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated to be the Democrat's nominee for President there in 1931. Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, Lana Turner and Groucho Marx frequented the hotel and golf courses. Trainloads of tourists disembarked at French Lick, Indiana.

Eventually, new attractions took people elsewhere. After World War II, America changed. The modern was more appealing than the historic. Pluto Water lost its luster (it was discovered that it contained lithium and wasn't suitable for drinking). Tom Taggart, seeing the writing on the wall, sold the hotel. In the 50's, gambling ended in the area. The hotel continued its downhill slide. Fortunately, a joint venture by the Cook Group and the Lauth Property Group, called Blue Sky, purchased both the French Lick and West Baden Springs Hotels. They have spent $400 million to preserve these two magnificent Hoosier landmarks. I truly hope the investment pays off - not just for them but for all of us.

So what about French Lick now? First, Brenda and I were there on the basis of a $99 a night special. The normal rate for our room is $240 a night. We considered having a massage as a way to pamper ourselves a little. A massage is $120 for 55 minutes. We didn't go any farther to inquire about manicures, pedicures, facials, mineral baths, etc. The food in the 1875 Steakhouse is extremely expensive - $40-$60 for a steak. But the buffet is doable for people on a budget - $20 for an evening meal that includes beef tenderloin, shrimp, ham and a large selection of vegetables, salads and desserts. So, the prices tell you that, generally, the less-than-affluent probably will not be staying at the French Lick, barring a "deal" like the one Brenda and I lucked into.

The casino is 42,000 square feet, all on one floor and offers 1,200 slot machines and 32 gaming tables, along with two restaurants. It bills itself as "Las Vegas-style" gambling, although I'm not sure exactly what that means. The slot machines are all new and most of them are multi-denominational so that you simply press a button that tells the machine what amount you want to bet. For instance, you can start out betting 50 cents, then press the button to switch to quarters, then if you choose, to dimes, nickels, two cents or even pennies. Hardly any of the machines are the straightforward old ones, where if three sevens, for instance, comes up, you win. On these, you have to decide on a complicated combinations of "lines" and "bets". Its difficult to tell what it takes to win or exactly how much you're betting at any given time, if you aren't a real gambling afficionado. I personally don't want to think that hard when I'm gambling on slot machines so I'm not a fan of these types of machines. Naturally, all these new machines play credits and give you receipts, rather than actual coins or even tokens. Over all, I wasn't all that impressed by the casino. (The Grand Victoria in Rising Sun remains my favorite Indiana casino.)

The other downer about going to French Lick is, well, French Lick. The town itself is shabby and depressing. Perhaps this will change with the influx of new jobs and tourists. In fact, it might be a good investment possibility for someone with a little cash and an idea for a restaurant or other type of business. A majority of the town seems to be for sale and I assume, you could get in on the ground floor now rather cheaply. Then you'd be in there if prosperity flows into the area. But for now, while the two hotels are beautiful historic treasures, the surrounding communities are not. There don't even seem to be old homes and buildings with character to use as a starting point (such as there were in Nashville, Indiana). Most of the houses are small and personality-less.

We went to see Larry Byrd's estate which is for sale for $8 million, although why anyone with $8 to spend on a home would choose to do it in French Lick, I couldn't even imagine. The home features an 8-car garage, tennis courts and 15 (count'em) basketball courts (who besides a professional basketball player would want 15 basketball courts?) The house is a large and somewhat glorified split level, certainly not coming close to suggesting a value of $8 million. I expect Larry Byrd will be sitting on this property for a while. (Mr Byrd, we were told, left French Lick after his mother died and now has homes in Greenwood, Indiana, and Naples, Florida).

Would I visit this area again? Yes, if the West Baden Springs offers a similar special on its rooms like the one we got for the French Lick, we want to go just to see that hotel.....and we would bet a little money at the casino while we were there. These two magnificent grand dames with their all their Hoosier history are well worth the trip.