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Friday, August 12, 2022

Piece By Piece

After 19th century Indiana lawmaker Tom Taggart bought the French Lick Springs Hotel — an impressive structure less than 100 miles from Evansville — in 1901, prominent politicians soon were socializing at this Southern Indiana landmark. There, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then a New York governor, announced he’d be the 1932 presidential candidate.

Soon, big-name celebrities — singer Bing Crosby and actor Groucho Marx — and mega mobsters such as Al Capone were captivated by the grandeur at French Lick and its competing opulent rival, the West Baden Springs Hotel. Above West Baden’s Pompeian-style floor and atop the building’s Corinthian columns is a remarkable domed ceiling 110 feet high and 200 feet in diameter, then the world’s largest free-standing dome and known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

As longtime Bloomington, Ind., newspaper writer Bob Hammel explains in his book, The Bill Cook Story: Ready, Fire, Aim! (Indiana University Press, 2008), the prosperous hotels began a dismal decline after World War II “when the winking stopped from the state government.” The hotels shuffled through owners, and from the 1960s through the 1980s, West Baden was a Jesuit seminary. “All the while, decay was decomposing ‘The Eighth Wonder,’” Hammel writes.
Rescuing these historic marvels needed a man with an equally impressive stature. Enter Bill Cook.

This southern Hoosier billionaire’s business ventures in medical devices, pharmaceuticals, genetics, real estate, retail management, and travel services began with just a $1,500 investment in Cook’s spare apartment bedroom in Bloomington, Ind., 46 years ago. His drive has pushed him toward success, and with it, he and his wife Gayle, who was born in Evansville, have been committed to causes — from marching bands to historic preservation. The latter, at least for the hotel restorations in French Lick, adds up to $450 million — $272 million in bonds and $178 million from the Cooks.

Their impact has been a major economic boost for Southern Indiana: Along with the hotels, golf courses, upscale restaurants, swimming pools, spas, and a casino on the lake add to French Lick’s ambiance. The workforce for the hotels created 1,600 jobs when they opened in 2007. With Cook’s efforts, the long-abandoned hotels have prospered for two years.

The following excerpt adapted for Evansville Business from Hammel’s biography of Cook tells the story of Cook’s efforts to save French Lick.     (Continued on Page 2)

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On the night of June 23, 2007, the grandest of all the Cooks’ restorations glistened in its considerable glory. Gala was the word used for the event that brought 1,000 people out that night to celebrate the return to life of the West Baden Springs Hotel. Gala fits that event, but understates. “It was the highlight of my life,” said Bill Cook.

That’s some highlight. Because Bill Cook has had some life. And so have the grand old hotels of the Orange County area that blends the communities of French Lick and West Baden into “The Valley” — Springs Valley, the natives call it. The name came for the unusually high sulfur content in spring water around the area, great for what ails you, the pitch of the early 1900s ran. And for a good while, it worked — oh, did that sales pitch work, a whole lot better commercially than medicinally. Then came the bad days.

Originally, Bill and Gayle Cook had no Valley thoughts at all. They had seen the two magnificent though ancient hotels, admired them, and included them in their 1960s Sunday auto trips with their son, Carl, and their Guide to Southern Indiana.

That was about the extent of what the Cooks could do with the hotels then. It took a lot of things over the next 30 years to pull them more deeply into effective involvement, including accumulation of a lot of personal wealth.

Wealth and the Valley have had a peek-a-boo relationship. Look elsewhere around French Lick and West Baden, and there aren’t many signs of opulence except for the two oases of it on the grounds of the two hotels that sprang up in rivalry.

In January 1991, a section of the hotel’s exterior collapsed, laying bare — as World War II bombs cleaved open buildings — hotel rooms that hadn’t been used for six decades. “A huge section from the sixth floor just pan-caked down,” Gayle Cook remembers. The grand old structure’s death knell was in the air. Marsh Davis, president of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, says even a well-known preservationist said: “Time is up on the building. We should declare it a ruin and let people crawl on it.” Instead, Davis said, in last-gasp desperation, the Indiana landmarks group “bought the whole place for a quarter of a million dollars, with no exit strategy in sight.”

J. Reid Williamson Jr. had Davis’s job then, and in trying to raise funds just to keep the building standing, Williamson came to Bloomington and met with Bill and Gayle Cook and Steve Ferguson in a room at Fountain Square.

“He came down looking for a much smaller sum of money, to help them buy the building so they could stabilize it,” Gayle said. “Bill surprised him. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do it.’ And he shook Reid’s hand.”     (Continued on Page 3)

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Chuck Franz was working at the time in a room next to where the meeting took place. “I couldn’t hear the small talk,” he said, but he got the basic dialogue — which, almost 20 years later, he can’t relate without laughing. “Bill asked the distinguished-looking man with him (Williamson), ‘So what kind of money are you looking for?’ He said they needed a million dollars to stabilize the back wall. They talk for about five minutes, and then I hear, bam, Bill’s fist bang down on the table, and he says, ‘Well, Steve, what the heck? We’ll go a million.’ I’m sitting there laughing — I can only imagine what the gentleman’s face looks like. The conversation goes on for five or ten minutes, and bang, Bill’s hand slams down again, and ‘Two million, Steve. We can do that.’ A little bit later, Steve walks the guy out, and he looks stunned. Then Bill opens the door, comes out, and says to me, ‘Did you hear what Ferguson’s got me into now?’ Gayle said, ‘Oh, no, Bill, that was all you.’”

“I think we all surprised ourselves,” Gayle says. “We were all saying, ‘Oh, let’s do it.’ We knew it was worth saving. It’s a National Historic landmark, not just on the National Register. And it was on the National Trust’s list of the 11 most endangered historic properties in the United States.” This led to what preservationists nationally call “The Save of the Century.” At that point, even the Cooks were just thinking survival. “It was a rescue attempt,” architect George Ridgway said.

“When Bill started in 1996, he was just shoring it up and cleaning it up,” Joe Pritchett said. “It was supposed to be about an 8- or 12-month project, and we were there two and a half years. It kept going from there. You just always hoped it would.”

Ridgway says, “Once we completed the first phase — $30 million plus — the project was for sale.” The sellers found no bidders but lots of suggesters, Gayle says. “People would say, ‘Oh, it would make a great religious retreat.’  Or ‘a great health retreat.’ Or ‘a great performing arts center.’ There was a feasibility study for a performing arts high school — very elaborate, very bizarre. We saw the plans for it. But there was never any money offered.”

The Cooks had a $30-million white elephant on their hands. “That building was a wreck,” Bill said. “We had stabilized it. And nobody wanted to buy it.”

And then one October night in 2000, accepting the year’s Outstanding Hoosier Preservationist Award at the French Lick hotel, Bill Cook for the first time personally said the G-word. “Gayle and I have run the gamut of the usage of the West Baden hotel,” he said, “and about the only use we can find would be as an adjunct to gambling.”

It was a thunderbolt that surprised even Gayle, but only in its timing. Bill had previewed his surprise in conversation with her — “a little bit,” he said, “and it was kind of distasteful to her. We never spent any time talking about it. We were both just enamored with making this thing work.”

Even that night at French Lick, after dropping the casino bombshell, Bill followed it by saying, “Gayle and I will not be a part of that.” That in-character disassociation was included in the news coverage of an event which, except for his surprise gambling comment, wouldn’t have been the statewide story it became. But, he says, “Gaming was never a moral issue with me. The moral issue was to save the hotel. It could have been done as a donation or a gift, but I never like to do any kind of building and not have a prospect of making a profit. Just having a living history is not good enough. The building should be alive and doing its thing. You can’t make every building a museum.”(Continued on Page 4)

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What had flashed into Bill Cook’s head that night was, “Hey! There is a way to save that building — and not just that building but a whole lot more. But it all has to fit together, and it starts with gambling.”

Starts is a key word. What he saw in that “Eureka” moment was that just gambling wasn’t enough, and just an astonishingly beautiful hotel wasn’t enough, considering the remote location. A bigger, broader enticement was needed to pull enough people in, somehow making a visit to the Valley a grand and unmatchable experience.

That meant upping his own ante a lot by buying the French Lick hotel, too, and giving it the same expensive, wholesale preservation and luxury update as West Baden — to three-and-a-half to four-star status for both. That meant making championship-level golf part of the experience to be offered. And first-class restaurants, swimming pools, spas, and shops to go with the magnificently groomed and historic gardens and grounds already at both places. And, of course, a casino, which by Indiana law couldn’t be inside either hotel but had to be — for quaint reasons — floating on water. So a moat-sized lake had to go in, with a casino in it.

On May 23, 2007, more than seven years after the tower-placing, a ribbon was cut in front of the main entrance, and the West Baden Springs Hotel officially opened to its first paid occupants in 75 years.

That, too, was a neat occasion. State and local officials were there. Architect George Ridgway, the son of a small southern Indiana community himself, was the speaker who best charmed the audience, with its blend of townsfolk wearing T-shirts and outsiders in suits and ties. The man who designed and supervised every act of the storied hotel’s recovery from the brink of demolition to its radiance of old was almost a full-time resident on-site through it all. And his love after all that intimacy showed in his closing line: “Some people call it ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World.’ I call it home.”

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, from nearby Bedford, headed the line of ribbon-cutters, which did not include Bill or Gayle Cook. They intentionally arrived about 45 minutes afterward. “That was a day for other people to be in the spotlight,” said Cook, who was represented in snipping and speaking by aide Steve Ferguson. By their arrival, the crowd had spilled through the doors to see from inside the reborn “Eighth Wonder.” The Cooks casually blended in with the milling mix of celebrators.

Jon Prichett, the construction engineer for the entire West Baden-French Lick project laughed as he recalled, “We were at lunch one time with Bill and some other guys, and a newspaper guy asked how financially he came up with what to do on something. Bill started to explain, then just said, ‘You either have the money or you don’t.’”

Bill Cook, who does have it, was asked when this whole project had begun, when the West Baden hotel that triggered it all was in its worst shape, did even he look at that wreckage and see such a total return? He thought and mused — about what he saw then, how he felt along the way.

“Aw,” he said, “if you throw enough money at anything, you can make it work.”

Bob Hammel’s book, The Bill Cook Story: Ready, Fire, Aim! ($24) is available at Barnes and Noble (624 S. Green River Road), Borders (6401 E. Lloyd Expressway), and online at www.iupress.indiana.edu. For more information about West Baden Springs Hotel and French Lick Resort Casino, visit www.frenchlick.com.

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