It’s A Mystery – Angels in the Dome

All Saint's Day - Painted by Fra Angelico
Today is All Saints Day, when the bonds between heaven and earth are celebrated. This seems an appropriate time to delve into our angelic mystery located far above the West Baden Springs Hotel atrium, in a tiny drum-shaped room. Here is a puzzle that has existed for over a century.

Fra Angelico
Known as the Angel Room, this small place houses several larger-than-life sized angels painted on wooden and steel panels in the style of Fra Angelico, one of the 15th century’s greatest painters. But who painted these Renaissance-style angels high above the atrium? That’s where the mystery comes into play. And like any good who-dun-it, there are several possible “suspects” to consider.

Angel Panels
First, whomever did the paintings had to have access to the room, paints, brushes, the talent and a knowledge of Fra Angelico’s work. So who fits that profile?

Rookwood Fireplace
It could have occurred when hotel owner Lee Sinclair contracted with architect Harrison Albright to build his new fireproof hotel after the original burned in 1901. Craftsmen from Italy were brought in during 1901-02 to lay floor tiles in the new hotel. Other artists came from Cincinnati to sculpt the Rookwood fireplace. Could one of these craftsmen have whiled away some time at the top of the dome?

Atrium Tile
Sinclair’s daughter, Lillian brought in more artisans during the extensive renovations of 1916-17. The Cassini Tile Company of Cincinnati was in charge of laying the new atrium floor and the Cassini family lived on-site while they placed over 12-million of the mosaic tiles. Did one of them paint the angels as a way of blessing the hotel?

WWI Soldiers at West Baden
Maybe it happened in 1918 when the hotel was leased by the US government as an Army hospital housing soldiers who had been injured during WWI. After having fought throughout Europe, did a soldier find his way to the top of the dome and enjoy some alone-time painting artwork he might have seen during the war?

In the 1920s, owner Ed Ballard had his Hagenbeck Wallace Circus set up the “big top” in the atrium during the winter months, putting on shows for guests and local residents as a way to keep the performers in practice. The circus performers and “roadies” came from across the country. Was a circus scene painter unleashing his inner artist in that small room high above the crowds?

Jesuit Priests at West Baden
After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, and the on-set of the Great Depression, the hotel quietly closed its doors. Ballard sold the building to the Jesuits for $1 and they turned it into a seminary, which remained open until 1964. Were the angels a testament of faith by one of the Jesuit priests, knowing that his religion frowned upon the ornate, but wanting to express his love of beauty where it would do no harm, high up under the dome where it would not be seen?

Graffiti Angel
The graffiti, which covers some of the paintings, can be dated back to 1918, but some is as recent as the 1980s. Scrapings were taken from the paintings and carbon-dated in 2009. Results were said to favor the original Italian craftsmen recording the dates of the paintings around 1901-1902. But nothing is for certain. The art work was not signed and no records of the room exist. 

Angel with Horn
Angel with Drum
Since this was a labor of love, maybe that’s as it should be because artists create art for their own pleasure, for the experience of creating and for the satisfaction of producing something beautiful. The fact that these beatific angels are high above the atrium in a room few people will ever enter seems to be rather poetic – as if these angels can continue their watch over West Baden unfettered by human intervention. For truly they are "angels on high."
By Joy Neighbors