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No. 1234:
West Baden Springs Hotel and Spa

Today, who were we in 1900? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Our Houston Astrodome opened in 1965. Its 680-foot diameter dome was then largest in the world. So what do you suppose was the largest free-span dome before that? The Pantheon? St. Peter's Church in Rome? They're only around 140 feet. But, in 1901, a 200-foot dome was built and I'm certain you'll never guess where.

The story, told by engineer Ronald Buckler, began in 1888 when the railroad finally reached southern Indiana. A businessman, Col. Lee Sinclair, had made a pile of money. Now, with rail service, he decided to create a spa in an Indiana town named West Baden Springs, after the local sulfur hot springs.

Sinclair built a 500-room hotel, casino, Catholic church, opera house, gymnasium, swimming pool, and more. His brochure listed fifty ills that the waters would cure -- including alcoholism, pimples, and gallstones. The railroad hauled in visitors from the East and business boomed until 1901. Then a terrible fire destroyed all those wooden structures in an hour's time.

When that happened, the owner of rival French Lick Springs seized the moment to announce a big expansion.

And the battle of the spas was on. Sinclair immediately commissioned a great fireproof pleasure palace -- over 700 rooms, many of which would surround, and face into, a vast domed atrium. The contract stipulated that it would be finished within 200 days.

Up it went. The inverted-bowl-shaped dome of structural steel rode on rollers to accomodate thermal expansion. The rollers sat on the flat tops of six-story columns. The first guests entered this monumental hotel one year, to the day, after the fire.

But times change. First, modern medicine eroded the plausibility of the spa's miracle-cures. The emphasis shifted from the waters to recreational facilities. Then the depression. To the handful of guests wandering its cavernous immensities in 1932, it felt more like a mausoleum than a resort. The hotel closed and never reopened. The Jesuits bought it for the sum of one dollar.

They occupied it until 1964. Then it became too much for them as well. Various people have owned it, tried to occupy it, and finally let it fall into ruin. One outer section has collapsed. In 1996, the Historic Landmarks foundation bought it for a quarter-million dollars. At this report they're trying to hold it together until they can find a permanent owner and use for it. Meanwhile they'll run tours for ten dollars, starting in May, 1997.

Take one look at that vast interior -- largest in the world for 2/3 of this century. It leaves us torn between laughter and tears. It is so grand, so pretentious, so wildly beyond any human purpose. It is such an accurate mirror of who we were -- in a grand age that we've all but forgotten.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Buckler, R., A Hidden Wonder of the World. Invention & Technology, Spring 1997, pp. 40-45.

A subsequent letter to the editor of Invention & Technology suggested that author Buckler may have missed one or two large more-than-200-foot domes before the Astrodome.