Saving a Rookwood Fireplace




 JULY 13, 2011 

The 2007 reopening of West Baden Springs Hotel in southern Indiana ranks as one of America’s finest architectural renovations in recent memory. With its magnificent dome standing 130 feet high above a grand atrium, spanning 208 feet across that atrium’s floor and above five circular floors of hotel rooms that look into the space, it (almost) is like a built-environment equivalent of looking at the Grand Canyon.

You just sit or stand in the atrium and stare in awe, from the floor up to the skylights, and wonder how on earth this could have been created way back in 1902. For decades, it was the largest freestanding dome in the United States.

Even more remarkable was the fact this National Historic Landmark not only is still standing in the 21st century, but that it is also once again open as a hotel. It was closed to the public in the early 1930s and then went through several private owners, as well as outright abandonment in the 1980s. A guide from Indiana Landmarks told me, on a recent visit, that the atrium was home to wild animals, including snakes, in that wilderness era. Small wonder, then, that it took Bloomington-based Cook Group — founded by the late Bill Cook and his wife Gayle — to spend a fortune to restore it.

But that abandonment, while it produced some structural damage, might also have saved another of the jewels in West Baden Springs Hotel’s crown: A mammoth, one-of-a-kind ornate fireplace designed by Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery Co. That fireplace is now a highlight of the restored atrium.

“I congratulate them for keeping it and bringing it back,” says Anita Ellis, Cincinnati Art Museum’s deputy director for curatorial affairs and a Rookwood authority. (The art museum collects Rookwood ceramics, and has a smaller fireplace in its Cincinnati Wing. “Being abandoned for so long is probably what saved it. That’s when others were torn down. And almost all others were torn down.”

The West Baden fireplace is 19 feet wide, 11 feet high, with a 7-foot-high opening leading into a pit that can burn 14-foot logs. It looks like a cave entrance from a distance. (Now rightly prized as an art object, it is no longer used for burning.)

The fireplace’s pottery surface, which looks like it was assembled in chunks rather than smooth tiles, depicts an idyllic, colorfully glazed pastoral scene, lorded over by a red-costumed elf sitting on a rock amid cascading waters and holding up a ram’s horn. He is Sprudel, once the mascot for the hotel and under whose name its medicinal water was bottled and sold. Across from him is a catalpa tree, and in the distance under pod-carrying limbs is visible a small depiction of the hotel.

According to Dyan Welsh Duncan, the resort’s public relations director, Lillian Sinclair — daughter of the original owner — commissioned Rookwood to redesign the old brick fireplace as part of 1917 renovations following a fire.

As word of this singular Rookwood fireplace’s survival and renewed prominence grows, research is going on to see who the actual designer might be and if it is the largest such fireplace extant. Meanwhile, try to see see it. We’re lucky it still exists.


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