West Baden, AMA’s Eighth Historical National Heritage Site

President’s Perspective 
By Rich Hanson, AMA President | [email protected]
As seen in the August 2022 issue of Model Aviation.

On January 22, 2022, the AMA Executive Council unanimously approved the West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick, Indiana, as an addition to AMA’s National Aeromodeling Heritage Program. On Sunday, March 27, 2022, the hotel was dedicated as an official Aeromodeling Historical Site in a ceremony conducted during the third annual Jim Richmond Open, a Category III Free Flight (FF) contest. 
I presented a declaration certificate to the West Baden Springs Hotel owner, Carl Cooke, and a bronze plaque commemorating this designation will be placed in a place of honor within the hotel. This recognition caps a history of more than 50 years of Indoor FF modeling at the hotel.
The Heritage Program’s goal is to identify and memorialize historic aeromodeling-related organizations, businesses, and sites, and in the process, collect, preserve, and interpret documents and materials related to each entity or landmark. With this designation, the West Baden Springs Hotel becomes the eighth historic location enshrined in AMA’s National Aeromodeling Heritage Program and joins other notable historic sites, that includes the Torrey Pines Glider Port, the Tustin Blimp Hangar, Thunderbird Field, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, and Hangar 1 at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
It’s fitting that the West Baden Springs Hotel becomes the eighth addition to the heritage program. When the new hotel opened for business in June 1902, the West Baden Journal deemed the new hotel “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
The following are excerpts from the 2022 NFFS Symposium’s, “Flying Indoor Free Flight in the Eighth Wonder of the World,” by National Free Flight Society (NFFS) President David Lindley. The full NFFS Symposium can be found on the NFFS website at https://freeflight.org.

In 1901, when a fire destroyed the previous lodging structure that stood on the property, owner Lee W. Sinclair used the tragedy as his opportunity to build the hotel of his dreams. He envisioned a circular building topped with the world’s largest dome, decorated like the grandest spas of Europe. Architect Harrison Albright, of West Virginia, accepted Sinclair’s commission and agreed to complete the project within a year. With a crew of 500 men working around the clock, they built the new hotel, at the time the largest domed structure of its kind in the world, in just 11 months for a cost of $414,000.
During the subsequent World War I era, Americans had disposable income and were beginning to travel, however, travel habits were changing as well. Henry Ford was making cars affordable to the common worker and people were starting to explore the West and Florida with their newfound mobility.
To address this changing taste in travel, the Sinclairs set about another ambitious remodel of the grand hotel. Italian-style gardens were added and a new telephone system was installed. A new building was erected to house bowling allies, a billiard room, and a shooting gallery. The most stunning, and expensive, part of the renovation was the transformation of the atrium into a majestic “Pompeian Court.” The cement floor was replaced with 12 million marble mosaic tiles, hand-laid in intricate designs. There were four statues of the Muses mounted on onyx pedestals and eight large and eight small urns, filled with palms and ferns. A large veranda was added to the entryway.
Unfortunately, toward the end of the war, there was a drop in American travel, and as the war was ending the US government requested use of the hotel as a military hospital for the returning wounded.
When the hotel reopened, it was able to capture the last bit of the postwar prosperity. However, the bubble eventually burst and the hotel went through a change of ownership and a change in focus due to the waning economy of the early 1920s. The hotel regained some success during the Roaring 20s, but eventually fell to the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
The hotel struggled through the Great Depression, with, at times, having as little as one guest in a hotel built for a thousand. The hotel finally closed for good in June 1932. The then owner, Edward Ballard, donated the entire property to the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits planned to use it as a house of study for the church.
The Jesuits ultimately chose to use the hotel as a seminary, but the opulence of the building concerned the church, and the Society of Jesus decided to remove most of the hotel’s elegant appointments. The seminary was named West Baden College and operated until 1964. In 1966, when the church could no longer afford the upkeep on the aging structure, the property was sold to a Michigan couple who donated it to Northwood Institute, a private hospitality and culinary college that operated in the building until 1983.
It’s unclear who originally identified the building as a potential site for Indoor FF, but shortly after Northwood Institute took over, there was some limited flying taking place. The FAI Team Finals were held at West Baden in August 1967. The FAI team selection program continued to use West Baden as a primary site for the North Central Zone team qualifications through 1975.
At that time, Stan Chilton proposed to Bud Tenny that the National Indoor Model Airplane Society (NIMAS) consider holding an annual event, the NIMAS International meet, in the hotel. Stan wrote in correspondence with Bud: “I envision a prestigious Indoor championship with emphasis on the social aspects, all in the setting of the historic site and surroundings.”
Stan even proposed that West Baden could be the site for the Indoor Nats in 1976. At the time, the AMA was set on maintaining a combined Nats and the idea of a West Baden Indoor Nats was quickly shot down, but Stan’s original vision quickly took flight.
The First NIMAS International Record Trials was scheduled for July 30-31, 1976, with a unique format. The “contest” was to break existing Category III Indoor records. The first year, Senior flier Richard Whitten took both first and second places with FAI Stick and Hand Launch Stick records respectively. By the second year 1977, the Second NIMAS International Record Trials was the premier event of the year. Indoor modelers would test new designs and ideas throughout the year at their local sites in order to be ready for the NIMAS Record Trials. In 1977, NIMAS also combined the record trials event with the F1D team trials and extended the event to four full days of flying. 
The NIMAS event continued to grow each successive year, adding a Peanut Grand Prix Day in 1979 and also changed the naming vernacular to replace “International” with “Annual.” This mature group of serious engineers had more than a few jokes about the new naming convention.
In 1980, West Baden hosted the F1D World Championships in conjunction with the annual NIMAS event. This was dubbed The World’s Greatest Indoor Meet and it earned the title.
NFFS, under the leadership of Hardy Brodersen, stepped forward to run the world championships and put together a first-class showing of this Indoor site for the international crowd. Dick Hardcastle, an Indoor flier and professional filmmaker, filmed the event and edited a 30-minute documentary of the event titled, The Worldly Flights of Indoor (currently available on the NFFS YouTube channel).
For the next three years, the annual NIMAS event would continue to grow. In 1982, NFFS added the US Indoor Champs (USIC) as part of the week at West Baden. As part of the USIC in 1982, the closing banquet featured Dr. Paul McCready, who gave a talk about how FF modeling had inspired his human-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor and Albatross.
The following year, however, brought bad news. The Northwood Institute had decided to close its campus. As it turned out, the FAI team was able to fly its team selection finals in West Baden in September of 1983 and a small group was able to fly the following summer, but 1983 marked the end of an era for Indoor flying at West Baden.
When the real estate developer who bought the building from the Northwood institute went into bankruptcy, it sent the building into litigation for years. For several years, there was no clear owner, no occupant, and, most importantly, no one taking care of routine maintenance on the building. It took a toll on the building.
Despite being designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1974, the hotel was closed for safety reasons in 1989. By January 1991, due to a buildup of ice and water on the roof, a large portion of the exterior wall collapsed! A group of modelers, led by Stan Chilton, was able to assemble a significant donation that was then matched by the Indiana Landmarks Commission. In 1992, work was done to stabilize the building until a new owner could be found. Thankfully, by 1994, the hotel was sold to an investment group.
The Cooke Group stepped in to preserve both the French Lick and West Baden Springs properties. After extensive renovations to both properties, the West Baden Springs Hotel reopened as a hotel in 2007. It was once again a grand hotel! The Cooke family appreciated the history of the building and where possible, recrafted the hotel to its 1920s grandeur.
It didn’t take long for the modelers to seize the opportunity presented by the hotel’s reopening. Walt Van Gorder set about building a relationship with the new owners and sharing our history with the building. After a little convincing, he was able to secure a weekend contest in the atrium in 2013. After 30 years away, Indoor FF was back at the dome!
The atrium is a Category III site with a height of just over 29 meters to the central ceiling structure. The West Baden Atrium is a superb Indoor flying site. Many national and world records have been set there, including the still-standing Category III F1D open record set by eight-time World Champion Jim Richmond. Many of the existing Category III records today date back to those NIMAS years in the 1970s and 80s.
Thanks to the efforts of Bud Layne and Leo Pilachowski, in 2018 the hotel once again played host to an F1D World Championships and the inaugural Jim Richmond Open contest prior to the World Championships. The Jim Richmond Open continues annually each March to this day (minus two years canceled by COVID). For the second time, the West Baden Hotel became a primary filming location for a documentary about our sport. The final scenes of FLOAT, directed by Phil Kibbe, were filmed at the 2018 World Championships.

If you get a chance to visit, do so! Come watch or fly in the Jim Richmond Open in March of each year. If you cannot attend, make a point of stopping by at another time to see this amazing piece of FF and architectural history. 
Keep ’em safe, keep ’em flying, and continue to enjoy this great hobby!  

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