In 1934 Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Baden Springs, Indiana was deemed structurally unsound, was pulled down, and was not rebuilt. A forest grows now where the church once stood. Revolving around Lourdes and its sister church, Our Lady of the Springs (still standing a mile or so down the road in the town of French Lick), is an interesting story about building a world we can live with. This story does involve some elements of what we usually think of as science—a Jesuit-run astronomical observatory is part of the story!—but it is mostly about science as considered more broadly: science as the process of looking carefully at the world around us and trying to measure it and to understand it and the rules by which it works, and to come up with ideas about it, on its terms, not on ours. It is a fascinating story, and one that may give us some good ideas for the future. But it is complex, not short, and best told with lots of pictures; so bear with me in this post, O Readers of Sacred Space Astronomy.
The “Springs Valley” in Indiana is a unique place. It is home to two very small towns—West Baden Springs (population under 600), and French Lick (population under 2000)—and two large, impressive hotels: the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Hotel. The existing hotel buildings date to the early 20th century, but since the mid-19th century hotels have existed on the spots these hotels occupy, thanks to a natural resource: the mineral springs in the Valley. Both hotels experienced decline; West Baden fell into partial ruin at one point. Both have experienced revival in the 21st century. Both are now fully restored, thanks to the actions of Indiana preservationists and investors; and at least up until the pandemic shutdown last month both had been operating quite gloriously, thanks to the establishment of a casino in French Lick (or “re-establishment”, as gambling was common in the area up through the first half of the 20th century). The Springs Valley towns are not part of a larger metropolitan area. Indeed, the Valley is surrounded on three sides by U.S. National Forest land. Therefore, while the hotels and casino are not the only economic engines in the area, they are big ones.
A key thing that makes the Springs Valley unique, then, is that in it are two small towns built around a vigorous economic infrastructure that dates to the early 20th century and before. Over time the Springs Valley has experienced economic highs and lows like much of the United States (and like other countries, too, I am sure). The U.S. is full of places where these highs and lows have involved jobs leaving and moving to sunbelt states, or to another country, or to a suburban industrial park. The result is often that the original structure of these places becomes hollowed out because of the economic lows. Sometimes that is re-built in other forms when an economic high arrives, but often no economic high ever arrives to match what once was, and the places remain hollowed out. In the Springs Valley, however, the jobs left—but then came back, right to the very same place.
For all these reasons, a map of the Valley today looks a lot like a map made in 1951. There are differences. For example, the 1951 map labels the current West Baden Hotel as “West Baden College”. But the Springs Valley is a place that retains much of what was attractive about American towns in the mid-20th century. It is a pedestrian-friendly place of neighborhoods, where a family can live, work, shop for groceries, go to church (to Our Lady of the Springs if they are Catholic, but there are a number of other churches as well), visit a public library or their children’s schools (Springs Valley High School, famous as the home of basketball legend Larry Bird, is right in the middle of French Lick), and meet both familiar faces and new ones—all within a distance easily covered by a walk, or a short bike ride, or a quick hop on a trolley bus (or even a trolley—a restored one runs on rails between the two hotels). Here a kid can go to school, stay after for sports or a club, then stop by the library to say hello to a group of friends who are playing a group game on the computers there, then swing by Mom’s workplace to bug her, and then go home, all safely on foot.
Yet a closer look at that 1951 map reveals something remarkable: these sorts of neighborhoods in the Springs Valley are disappearing. Parts of both towns that in 1951 were full of homes are today full of grass—even places with a fine view of the Valley, or located a short walk from Our Lady of the Springs or the Valley schools. This phenomenon is not just something inferred from an old map—it can be seen directly, in Google Street View.
So why the disappearance of homes? I am not an expert on the area—only an occasional visitor. However, maps are data. Historical records like photographs (or payrolls or court documents or baptismal records) are data. Google Street View is data. So, taking a broad view of science as being looking at data on the world in order to understand the real world as it is, what follows is a “hypothesis” to explain the disappearing homes:
The disappearing homes are the tail end of a long economic decline. Their disappearance is of the same sort as the disappearance of Our Lady of Lourdes. Lourdes had been built by Lee Wiley Sinclair, the owner of the West Baden Hotel that existed at the turn of the 20th century. The arrival of a rail line into the Valley in 1887 had caused the area to boom. Sinclair decided the hotel needed to have a Catholic church overlooking it, and in 1898 began construction on Lourdes (whose name was presumably chosen as appropriate for the “Springs”). The hotel burned to the ground in June 1901, but by December of that year Sinclair was constructing the remarkable circular brick-and-steel domed structure (the largest dome in the world for five decades) that stands today. It was quite the place, but the Great Depression brought an end to it. The owner of the hotel at that time, Ed Ballard, ended up giving the hotel to the newly-established Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits turned the hotel into a seminary, called West Baden College. They even built a small astronomical observatory there. But just as the Jesuits were taking ownership, Lourdes was deemed to be structurally unsound, owing to water and erosion problems, and had to be pulled down.
The Catholic connection to this hotel is surely an interesting story. Here was a Catholic church sitting above a popular, high-end hotel, at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was powerful in Indiana, and in the Springs Valley area. Luke E. Hart, a member of the Knights of Columbus (he would go on to lead the Knights a few decades later), while taking a train to French Lick in 1923, saw area roads lined with automobiles full of people returning from a huge Klan parade. The parade was in the town of Orleans, Indiana, located less than a dozen miles northeast of the Springs Valley. “The lights of the automobiles lit up the roads for miles and made quite an impression on the travelers on our train,” he wrote. He estimated that a thousand automobiles were on the road—this in a time when automobile ownership was not so common. No doubt this sort of Klan support was very intimidating to Hart, for the Klan was not just racist, but strongly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Knights of Columbus. The area south and west of the Springs Valley is heavily Catholic, with Catholic churches dotting the farmland every few miles; definitely not Klan territory. The Valley seems to have sat on a cultural dividing line of sorts. Perhaps the construction of Lourdes (Sinclair was not Catholic himself), and the gift of the hotel to the Jesuits, were not matters of whim. I have not found any information on this, however.
In the mid 1960’s the Jesuits moved their seminary to Chicago, and the domed building became a campus of what is now Northwood University. Then in the mid-1980’s Northwood moved out. The building stood empty. Like Lourdes before it, it became structurally unsound—a whole section of it collapsed in 1991. But unlike Lourdes, it was not pulled down. It was eventually saved, and rebuilt, and since 2007 has been a functioning, high-end hotel, restored to full glory, but also fully modern.
But for almost two decades the Springs Valley boasted a crumbling hulk instead of an economic engine. My hypothesis regarding the disappearing homes is that many homes suffered “deferred maintenance”, or were abandoned, despite being right around the corner from church, or having a fine view. They deteriorated beyond repair, and were pulled down, like Lourdes.
But Lourdes was not simply turned into landfill rubble. Its bricks and windows were re-used in the construction of St. Raphael Church, located in the town of Dubois (population under 500), a dozen miles southwest of the Springs Valley. St. Raphael boasts some very nice windows, thanks to re-use.
And in a sense, re-use of existing resources is a central theme in this story. The West Baden Hotel was re-used—becoming two different colleges before becoming a hotel again. The economic infrastructure of the Valley has been re-used. Those now-grassy lots can be re-used, to again become neighborhoods for families who will be able to live, work, go to school, bug their parents, shop for groceries, meet familiar faces and new ones, and so forth. The Valley is not a “throw-away” society, or at least it is less of one than many places in the U.S. And sometimes not throwing everything away has benefits, such as some rather awesome windows in a church that probably would not have them were it not for re-use.
It is this re-use that points us to a world we can live with. We human beings do not make the rules by which the world runs. We can build in an unsound manner. We can build a church on an erosion-prone hillside, for example. But we will have to deal the consequences of doing so, of ignoring those rules. This is not a new idea:
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.
But while we do not make the rules, through science we can aim to learn the rules (and not only through science), and to live with them. We can figure out how to build soundly things and communities that will serve well through changing times.
In the 21st century it seems that we have built much that is unsound. A result of this is that we have people that are mentally and physically unsound. Science and the media tell us of rising suicide and addiction rates, and falling life expectancies (and that was before COVID-19). We cannot easily measure those things for ourselves, until the problems become very dramatic, as they have for many people. Then we see them for ourselves. Science also tells us that the planet, too, is unsound as regards climate. Again, we cannot easily see this for ourselves, but if the science is right then in due course the problem will become sufficiently apparent that there will be no debating it. When a sizeable majority of people become personally convinced that a problem is real, to the point where they are wanting to act for the good of their grandchildren and children and themselves—not to just talk, or to vote for someone (who promises that government or big corporations will address this issue), but to take personal responsibility and act to change their own habits to address the problem—when that happens, the world will change, and quickly, as it has in recent months.
However, it would help to have an attractive model of what change might look like—of how to do things differently, but in a way that makes a change of habits look not so bad, and indeed, maybe even appealing. In this regard we might be served well by looking to a place that has figured out how to re-use existing resources and infrastructure, rather than to abandon the old and build anew elsewhere; to a place where a family can live, work, go to school, etc. within a short, safely navigable distance—allowing for a good life with less waste of resources, and less impact on the planet. My point here is not to return to the past (the 2020s need neither the coal-burning train engines nor the massive Klan rallies of the 1920s), nor is it to idealize a community (a casino is not something welcomed by all). My point is that it is possible to do things differently, in a way that has its appeal—a way that might suggest to us that changing our habits and getting on with the process of learning how to do things soundly, to do things in ways that we can live with, and that conform to the rules by which the world works, might not be so bad. The area that built and lost Our Lady of Lourdes is not the only place that can serve as a model for this, surely, but it is one place.
Information and photos for this post came from exhibits at the French Lick West Baden Museum and from the book Risen from the Ashes: The History of the West Baden Springs Hotel (Patrick O’Bryan, 2016).