By Joy Neighbors
Dateline: July 8, 1875
She lived a privileged life as the only child of Lee W. and Caroline Precise Sinclair. Lillian Sinclair was born on Thursday, July 8, 1875 in Salem, Indiana. Her parents were wealthy; her father had owned a woolen factory in Salem, and served one term in the Indiana House of Representatives before purchasing the West Baden Hotel in 1888. Sinclair changed the hotel’s name to West Baden Springs and immediately began to capitalize on the mineral waters he touted as having medicinal powers – a cure for multiple ailments. He also turned the hotel into an elegant retreat with each room heated by steam and lighted with electricity. Life was good for Lillian, a child of wealth and privilege.
Then in 1901, the hotel caught fire and burned to the ground along with several other buildings. Sinclair was devastated; he felt that he was too old to begin again and was ready to throw in the towel. But Lillian rallied her father, convincing him that this was his opportunity to build the hotel he had always wanted.
|Construction of West Baden Springs Hotel|
Sinclair began to share Lillian’s enthusiasm and decided to build a circular hotel topped with the largest dome in the world. And he wanted it completed within one year of the anniversary of the fire. Lillian supported him in his dream and enjoyed the fact that the hotel became known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” In fact, the hotel flourished and “the movers and shakers” of the early 20th century flocked to the resort to partake of the waters and enjoy the amenities.
On October 5, 1911, Lillian married Charles Barton Rexford. For the next five years, life was good for Lillian and Charles. Then on September 7, 1916, Lillian’s beloved father died. She and her mother were grief-stricken as more than 1,500 people attended Lee Sinclair’s funeral, held in the atrium of his beloved hotel.
|Rookwood Fireplace in Atrium|
Lillian and her husband inherited the hotel, and she was determined to continue the modest improvements her father had begun in 1913. She and Charles decided to make the renovations more elaborate and based their ideas on creating a Roman influence throughout the hotel and grounds. The four numbered springs were named after Roman gods and goddesses, more than 12-million terrazzo tiles were installed on the atrium floor by Italian craftsmen, 24 six-story columns were placed in the atrium and covered with canvas painted to resemble marble, and the huge fireplace in the atrium was resurfaced by the famous Rookwood Pottery from Cincinnati. It now depicted a German forest with the hotel in the background and Sprudel keeping watch on guests.
|WW1 Army Nurses at West Baden Hotel|
Restorations became even more extensive and took two years to complete. By 1918, the U.S. had entered World War One. In the patriotic spirit of the day, Lillian offered the hotel to the U.S. government to be used as an Army hospital for wounded American soldiers. She apparently was not aware that Charles had taken out a $500,000 loan to assist with remodeling costs. Without an income, the hotel, and the Rexford’s, slid closer to financial ruin. After she discovered the loan, Lillian’s marriage fell apart.
In 1918, Lillian met Lieutenant Harold Cooper, a wounded soldier recuperating at the hotel/hospital and fell in love. She divorced Rexford in 1922 and married Cooper in 1923. That same year, she sold the hotel to Ed Ballard, who had made the original loan to Charles Rexford. Lillian could not pay off the loan, so the hotel sold to Ballard for $500,000 in cash and $500,000 in forgiveness of the original loan.
Once the sale was final, Lillian and Harold moved to California to begin their lives over. The Coopers did not have children and Lillian spent the next 30 years living with Cooper in the Golden State.
Lillian died on August 16, 1949 in Santa Monica, California. Her body was returned to Salem, Indiana to be placed in the Sinclair family mausoleum in Crown Hill Cemetery. She was 74 years old.