Original Ambiance

By Will Holloway
Published in Traditional Building

Project: The French Lick Springs Hotel, French Lick, IN
Architect: G. S. Ridgway and Associates, Vincennes, IN
Decorative Restoration: Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc., New Berlin, WI; Gunar Gruenke, vice president, project manager
By Will Holloway

In the mid-19th century, a local physician bought 15,000 acres of land in the southern Indiana town of French Lick and built the French Lick Springs Hotel, luring guests with the alleged healing powers of the nearby Pluto Mineral Springs. The structure burned down in 1897, but was quickly rebuilt and then purchased in 1901 by Indianapolis mayor Tom Taggert, who expanded the 443-room Beaux Arts hotel and developed the French Lick Springs Resort – complete with a championship golf course and a bottling house to process “Pluto Water” – which thrived in part due to the numerous illegal gaming establishments located nearby. It was a tourism mecca in the Midwest and a destination for the rich and famous, including Groucho Marx, Lana Turner and Bing Crosby; Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his presidential run at the hotel in 1931. But the fortunes of the French Lick Springs Resort began to wane during the Depression, declining further when local casinos were closed down in 1949.

After numerous attempts by a variety of owners to return the hotel to its former glory, fortunes began to turn in 2005 when the resort was awarded a gambling license. As part of the $382-million expansion and transformation of the complex into the French Lick Resort Casino, the Classically detailed interior of the historic 1901 hotel was restored by Conrad Schmitt Studios Inc. (CSS). Over a span of 16 months, 18 artisans worked onsite – as well as four in the company’s New Berlin, WI, studio – to restore the ornamental plaster, scagliola and decorative finishes in the hotel’s public areas. When the French Lick Resort Casino opened in November 2006, its richly ornamented interior and re-gilded exterior dome reflected an optimism that the glory days of the French Lick Springs Hotel had returned at long last.

Gunar Gruenke is a part owner of CSS and was the project manager for the decorative restoration of the hotel. Working hand in hand with the owners – the Bloomington, IN-based Cook Group and the Indianapolis, IN-based Lauth Group – and the architect, G. S. Ridgway and Associates of Vincennes, IN, CSS performed historical analyses to determine the original color palette, stencil designs and decorative-painting treatments, which Gruenke says had been compromised by a one-to-two color scheme done by painting contractors. “Once we determined what had been there, we were able to put up samples to determine what the new interior of the hotel was going to look like,” says Gruenke, noting that the company’s areas of focus were the once ornate grand and entry lobbies, the Colonnade dining hall, and the Pluto Room.

When CSS began working on the hotel in 2005, the dozens of scagliola columns and pilasters in the grand lobby were cracked and over-painted. Each was ground and sanded – Gruenke says that it is a 20-step process to return the scagliola’s original sheen and beauty. While some of the column capitals needed minor repairs, others were replicated in full. For new elements, molds were created and the scagliola was cast. After hardening, the new scagliola was ground, polished and finished with carnauba wax. All told, CSS produced miles of scagliola panels and elements, including a full historic replica fireplace, which was designed and fabricated based on an historic photograph to match the existing wainscoting.

Based on historic elements, more than 5,000 linear feet of hand-painted and stenciled borders were created on canvas in the CSS studio and applied onsite. Three stencil designs – one adorns the ceiling beams, another the window borders and a third the pediment above the doors – are composed of as many as 22 colors and include hand-painted shadows and highlights. Plaster elements were fabricated, primed and finished with gold leaf and glazes in warm golds, tans and deeps reds. In total, 850 plaster rosettes were repaired, primed, gilded and glazed in the two lobbies.

“The entry lobby and grand lobby are incredibly grand,” says Gruenke, “but the ceiling in the entry lobby had been stripped of its original ornament, so [Jasper, IN-based] Kelly and Morron Plastering took some plaster elements from other areas and replicated them, and then created new murals based on the theme the owners wanted to establish.”

As a nod to the historic Pluto Mineral Springs, the six large murals, which relate to Pluto and mythology, were created by a Bulgarian master artist in the CSS studio and installed in Baroque plaster frames on the ceiling of the grand lobby. Realized on polyester cotton-blend canvases, the murals include depictions of Pluto on his throne; the musician Orpheus and his wife, Eurydice; Heron the Boatsman; Persephone and her mother, Demetra; and Cerberus, the two-headed dog.

The dining hall, now known as the Colonnade Buffet, was one of the hotel’s original ballrooms. Without an elegant original palette to work with, Gruenke says that CSS restored this space to an eclectic level, with full marble columns, extensive hand stenciling – done in the studio and installed onsite – and gold leaf.

Gruenke says that the Pluto Room is his favorite space in the hotel. “We finished this space in white and palladium, which is similar to white gold,” he says. “We added subtle-colored Nicholas Lacquer, such as blues, greens and reds and added stenciling on top – this is a really elegant space.”

Part of the Pluto Room is topped with an ornate dome that had originally been copper. “The copper had been destroyed,” says Gruenke. “There were holes in it, it was leaking, and there were broken and missing pieces on the urns.” After Helming Brothers, of Jasper, IN, re-fabricated the dome, CSS primed it with a specially formulated two-part epoxy and gilded it with 23-k leaf.

Having opened in November 2006, the French Lick Springs Hotel is once again a premier destination in the Midwest, with guests from far and wide once again admiring its ornately decorated interiors and shining gilded dome. “It was a monumental project,” says Gruenke, noting that almost all of the workers at the French Lick Springs Resort have moved on to the restoration of another historic hotel nearby, the West Baden Springs Resort. “We’re talking about close to 30,000 hours of labor for our craftspeople, and there were around 800 people working on the project in total. The neatest thing is that the owners are such wonderful people that they were able to surround themselves with people who really wanted to do it for them. The whole team was just a really great group of people.”

“It was an outstanding project to be involved with,” adds Gruenke. “I’m looking forward to going down and staying there.” TB

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