How do you take on a building devoid of corners? Ask George S. Ridgway, AIA, LS.



It was early May 1996 when the challenge of restoring the West Baden Springs Hotel reared its ugly head. Acclaimed by The Chicago Sun,The Indianapolis Star, and many local newspapers to be the Eighth Wonder of the World, West Baden, built in 1902 in a remarkable 277 days, had fallen into total neglect since 1983.

The national historic landmark located in French Lick, Ind., began as leased property of Dr. John A. Lane. Lane, a prosperous medicine salesman, branched out with another hotel a mile away in the town of Mile Lick. In 1855, Lane’s new hotel, the Mile Lick Inn, opened for business. Lane later had the town of Mile Lick, known for its natural mineral springs alleged to have curative powers, renamed to West Baden after the famous mineral springs and spa town in Wiesbaden, Germany. He also renamed his hotel to West Baden Hotel. The hotel reigned for years as a resort area, attracting many wealthy patrons.

Through the years, the hotel has had many owners, including one of its frequent guests, Lee W. Sinclair. In 1888, Sinclair acquired ownership of the hotel and transformed it into a sophisticated resort with an opera house, casino, pony and bicycle track and a full-size baseball field. The yet again renamed hotel (it then became West Baden Springs Hotel) fell to ruin in June 1901 from a raging fire. Sinclair then built his dream of a circular building topped by the world’s largest dome. This amazing domed hotel is where my associates and I were given the experience of a lifetime.

Once Upon a Time…

Once a prosperous resort for wealthy and workaday patrons, West Baden Hotel began its demise after the stock market crash of 1929, whereupon hotel owner Ed Ballard gave the multi-million-dollar resort to the Society of Jesus (known as the Jesuits) for $1 (yes, one dollar) in 1934. Known as West Baden College, the hotel was a Jesuit seminary until June 1964 when enrollment at the college declined, but expenses and maintenance of the aging building continued to increase. The Jesuits left their home in West Baden for a new facility in Chicago, Ill., leaving West Baden Springs Hotel to sit idle for two years. In 1966, the grounds and buildings were sold at an auction to Mr. and Mrs. Macauley Whiting of Midland, Mich. The Macauleys donated the hotel to Northwood Institute, a private college, which operated on the property until 1983.

The property continued its demise through many phases of ownership, litigation and neglect. It was closed to the public in 1989 for safety reasons and in 1991, a buildup of water and ice on its rooftop and drainpipes caused the collapse of a 104-foot section of the exterior wall. The dome, however, remained structurally sound.

Minnesota Investment Partners purchased the hotel in 1994 from a Los Angeles bankruptcy court receiver for $500,000, which was provided by Grand Casinos Inc. In 1995, Grand Casinos lobbied to amend the Indiana state law to allow riverboat gambling on a body of water it proposed to build on the hotel property. During 1995 the General Assembly failed to enact the legislation, which would have allowed a floating casino on the grounds. Grand Casinos sold the hotel in 1996 to the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. Over the next three years, Cook Group Inc., a corporate benefactor of Bloomington, Ind., invested millions of dollars in a partial restoration project.

Cook Group, a wholly owned company that manufactures medical devices and pharmaceuticals, sought out a surveying firm to perform complete measurement in the hopes of restoring the old hotel. Owners Bill Cook and his wife, Gayle, proved their deep involvement in historic preservation by providing $31 million to restore West Baden Hotel—a hotel they do not own.

Since there were no existing drawings of the hotel, it had to be fully measured. A simple task, I thought. My firm, G.S. Ridgway and Associates (Westphalia, Ind.) had measured thousands of buildings before. After all, we were architects—and better yet—we were land surveyors. Who better to provide as-built drawings?

Greg Blum (balcony), George Ridgway (transit) and Russell Cooper (notes) measure and draw the 200' diameter dome.

A Circle of Challenge

West Baden Hotel carries six stories and is crowned by the world’s largest dome, measuring 200' in diameter and a clear height of 110'. And the building is built in a circle. Upon first entry, Bill Cook said, “Where do we start?”

My response was, “Bill, where we start is not the problem. Where are we going to stop?”

Armed with our sketch pads, tapes and great desire, my associate, Ed Selfe, and I set out to measure the first floor. Since hardly any rooms had square corners, we used our best surveying skills and measured cross corners, triangles and offsets.

Once we completed the first floor, we took our great file of “super accurate numbers,” returned to our “great” computers and began to plot our circular building using Autodesk AutoCAD 14 and Softdesk Surveying Package.

When all of our best plans and “super accurate numbers” were plotted, we found that our circular building did not close by more than 8 feet! What kind of order of survey would that be? Then I thought, “You know, George, if you surveyed land with this kind of error, they would come and take your license.”

Interior traverse control was set up on each of the six floors.

Demonic Dimensions

That was when we decided that our simple measuring problem would last a little longer than we had planned. Little did we know that this building with six acres under roof would take six months to measure and draw. Ironic isn’t it: six acres, six floors, six months. Could this be a building possessed?

Our next trip to West Baden was with levels, transits, EDMs, steel tapes—and two extra people. We used Topcon transits and levels, HP 48 SX data collectors, K&E level and transit books and thousands of 8 1⁄2 x 11" note pads.

Our first task was to set the geometric center of the dome. From this geometric center, we set more than 200 control points throughout the structure. We also ran a closed traverse around each floor and this time we closed each traverse within 1/8 of an inch. Each horizontal traverse had to be related to each other in the vertical plane as well. We also found that the floors were out of level as much as 3" at various points.

To set up the geometric center of the atrium, we used the hotel’s 24, 6' diameter masonry columns as control. We ran radial lines from the center of a column to its counterpart 180 degrees across the dome. When all 24 center lines intersected at one point, the center of the dome was known. At that point we drilled a 1⁄4" hole in the concrete floor and that became control point number 001. Six months later, the same point became number 001.

The next step was to occupy control point 001 and run radial lines to the center corridor on each floor. This meant finding a line of sight across the atrium throughout the inner ring of rooms to the central corridor. Sometimes this radial line would be through a door, other times through a window, and sometimes through a section of wall missing a few bricks. The radial lines had to be run to all six floors and as the vertical angles increased, the opportunities to find line of sight grew smaller. This process took 45 days. Once all control points had x, y and z coordinates and all points verified on our computers, we were ready to start this “simple” project. The corridors of each floor became the control elements. All dimensions were taken from a minimum of two control points; we were very grateful for the mathematical properties of the triangle. This is a building with four concentric circles, and after all our surveying work, we found that all four centers fell within the space of a quarter coin.

Oops, the Floor Fell In

Even though the six-month project was all indoors, and cold and rainy days were not a problem, there were a few other problems that most surveyors do not encounter. One day we had set a control point on the first floor corridor at 6:00 p.m. and left for home. Upon returning the next morning at 7:00 a.m., we found that an area 10' x 30' of the floor had collapsed into a tunnel below the floor. Of course, the collapse had taken our control point with it. Another day we measured a portion of the kitchen, left the hotel to get more note pads from the truck, and returned 15 minutes later to find that section of the kitchen to be part of the basement. At that point, Greg Blum, the civil engineer said, “You know this building stays here out of habit.”

As an architect, this was a once-in-a-lifetime project. As a land surveyor it was one of my greatest achievements. I’m glad I had both registrations and I am even more thankful we were paid on an hourly rate. At one time during the actual restoration, there were 255 workers on the project. With over 550 rooms there were many places to “rest.” At some times keeping all the work going was like trying to herd cats.

The hotel is now restored at a cost of $31 million invested by Cook Inc. Now there is a set of as-built plans that will keep some other architect or land surveyor from losing his or her mind. It is open to the public seven days a week for tours. And it’s for sale; if you want to buy it, I am authorized to take your check.