On Top of the Dome at the West Baden Springs Hotel
One of the perks of my job as editor of Preservation is that I occasionally am granted unprecedented access to places where most people don’t get to go—checking out preservation work firsthand up on scaffolding at the Washington National Cathedral and Baltimore’s Washington Monument, for example.
Most recently, I was invited to climb on the roof of Indiana’s West Baden Springs Hotel dome and down into its “angel room.” (I have to admit, that while that sort of access is most appreciated, it can also be a bit of an occupational hazard. You may have heard me admit this before—I’m a bit scared of heights.)
The defining element of the 1902 hotel is a glass and steel domed atrium that spans 200 feet, and at the time of construction it was the largest of its kind in the world. But being exceptional didn’t ensure security for the distinctive structure.
When the resort industry fizzled out during the Great Depression, the hotel was repurposed as Jesuit seminary and then as a private college before it was abandoned. When the empty building fell into disrepair and then suffered a partial collapse under the weight of built up winter ice, the National Trust listed it as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.
Soon after the listing, Bloomington, Indiana’s Cook family partnered with Indiana Landmarks to renovate and restore the iconic structure. During renovations in the 1990s, workers discovered a series of eight angel paintings on the walls of a small cylindrical room at the top of the atrium just below the center of the dome.
How and why the paintings were created and by whom was a mystery then and remains so to this day. The only clues pointing toward when the paintings were made can be found in the graffiti written on top of the paintings, the earliest of which dates back to 1918.
Because the room is only accessible through a trap door in a room located on top of the dome, when I was given the chance to climb up and check out the painted angels in person, I didn’t hesitate—despite my fear of heights.
Following are a bunch of photos I took with my phone, so the quality isn’t the best, but I’ve published them here regardless. After all, behind-the-scenes photographs of the angel room and the view of southern Indiana from up on the roof of the dome don’t come by often.