The House of Blue Lights

Written by on October 29, 2013 in Historic Miscellania - 16 Comments
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Once upon a time, it was a rite of passage for Indianapolis teenagers to park their cars at the end of a long, wooded drive off of Fall Creek Road on the northeast side. They traversed the steep, hilly, woods to get a glimpse of the macabre, a glimpse of a woman’s casket, wrapped in blue Christmas lights, kept in the strange house of her mourning husband. Others were so bold as to take a midnight dip in the eccentric millionaire’s elaborate swimming pool or cruel enough to place one of the dozens of cats that lived on the property into the nearby dog pens.

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Skiles Edward Test. Left: His 1908 Manual High School Graduation Photo. Right: Skiles around 1960 (photo courtesy of Garry Ledbetter)

The true mystery surrounding what would become the urban legend known as “The House of Blue Lights” wasn’t the location of Skiles Test’s dead wife — in truth, his wife and two ex-wives long outlived him — it’s how and why the legend came to be in the first place.

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Skiles’ father, Charles E. Test, was president of the National Motor Vehicle Company until his death in 1910.

Skiles Edward Test was born in Indianapolis to parents Charles Edward Test and Mary Elizabeth Skiles on October 19, 1889. Charles Test had made his fortune as president of the Indianapolis Chain Works, founded by future Indianapolis Motor Speedway co-founder Arthur C. Newby, which became the Diamond Chain Company.  It’s still in operation on Kentucky Avenue today. In 1900, Test, Newby, and five others founded the National Motor Vehicle Company and set up operations northeast of downtown. National would produce the car that won the second running of the Indy 500 in 1912, driven by Joe Dawson.

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Above:       Skiles Test’s childhood home at 795 Middle Drive in Woodruff Place, circa  1910 (photo: chuckstoyland.com)    Below: the Test mansion as it appears today (photo: Ryan Hamlett)

Skiles grew up, along with brother Donald and sister Dorothy, in the mansion their father Charles built at 795 Middle Drive in Woodruff Place on the near east side. The mansion still sits on a giant lot, its heavily wooded garden obscuring the carriage house set back from the street. Nearby Arsenal Technical High School wouldn’t open until 1912, so young Skiles attended Manual Training High School, located at 525 South Meridian before it was relocated to Madison Avenue in 1953. Skiles was a permanent fixture on the Honor Roll and finished in 3 1/2 years, graduating in 1908. If he had intended on going to college, he never got an opportunity. Charles Test passed away in a Wisconsin sanitarium of Bright’s Disease in 1910, leaving the eldest child, Skiles, to head the family.

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The Farmhouse. Likely the most famous photo of what would become known as “The House of Blue Lights” (photo courtesy of Garry Ledbetter)

In 1913, Skiles married his first wife, Josephine Benges, another Manual alum, and the two moved northeast of town into a small house, tucked away in a huge, heavily wooded farm. There, fueled by a brilliant technical mind and a seemingly endless supply of money, Skiles began to build an eccentric assortment of structures and contraptions. He built a small rail system around his property, with cars powered by National engines. He solved a dispute with Indianapolis Power & Light by building his own power plant on his property. His farm was fully functioning, employing as many as 20 people around the first World War, and it was said his cows would occasionally wander off and be found grazing on the golf course of nearby Hillcrest Country Club.

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Left: An aerial photo of Skiles Test’s property from 1937 (from IUPUI CEES) Right: Satellite photo of the Skiles Test Nature Park. The approximate location of the house marked by the arrow. (Google maps)

But Skiles wasn’t simply sitting back and spending all of his inheritance. He and his siblings constructed a building on Monument Circle in honor of their father, hiring architects Bass, Knowlton, and Co. to design a nine-story building that also housed Indianapolis’ first parking garage. The Circle Motor Inn’s six stories and 200 parking spaces represented two-thirds of all the available parking downtown for a full 20 years after it opened in 1925. Skiles’ real estate company, the Test Realty Co., was also based in the building. Later, Skiles held true to his family’s motor vehicle roots and owned a Nash dealership.

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The Test Building at Monument Circle and West Market Street. Skiles Test held dozens of patents, many of which were innovations in multi-story parking garages.   (photo: courtesy of The Bass Collection at the Indiana Historical Society)

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Left: Skiles and two of his St. Bernards. Middle: The cat house. Few of the dozens of cats on the property were brought in by Skiles. Many were strays that found their way to the cat house and were then allowed to stay. Right: A tombstone in the pet cemetery. Most cats and dogs were buried in small caskets and marked by tiny tombstones. (photos courtesy of Garry Ledbetter)

It’s uncertain exactly when the property began to gain notoriety. The 1975 book The House of Blue Lights by Kay J. Miclot suggests that the legend seems to begin to pop up between the two World Wars. Author and a former farmhand of Skiles Test, Garry Ledbetter, thinks it was closer to World War II. Skiles loved the color blue.  He put up blue lights each Christmas and hung blue bug-zapping lights around his enormous swimming pool. Initially, he was amused by the rumors surrounding him and his eccentric property. There were several variations, but the core legend had it that a rich old man lived in his secluded house, in which his beloved wife died by accident. So he kept her in a glass coffin, surrounded it with blue lights (her favorite color), and kept her in his house. A strange tale indeed, especially for a man as well known as Skiles Test, whose wife had not died, and who definitely had not fallen victim to some ghastly accident. But by the mid-1950s, there were so many trespassers wanting to catch a peek that Skiles had to put up tall fencing around the entire property.

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While all the buildings that made up Skiles Test’s farmstead have long since been razed, rusting fences still line the property and meander through the woods. This gate to nowhere still sports a tag reading “Test” and while it’s unlikely it dates back to Skiles’ time, perhaps it does. (photos: Ryan Hamlett)

Throughout the Fifties and into the Sixties, the trespassers and vandals became increasingly bold. Skiles found a group of teens swimming in his pool and took their clothes and keys, only to be sued by one boy’s father. Trespassers released dogs from their pens and started fires in outbuildings.  Skiles found a teen in his kitchen drinking a Coke he’d taken from the fridge. For a while, he took to sleeping in the multi-story pool house, its cinder-block construction being more fire-proof than the house. Plagued with stress-related ulcers, Skiles began to leave each night and stayed at his girlfriend’s house, so as to not be tormented by the nonstop onslaught of lookie-loos.

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The Test family monument in Crown Hill Cemetery and Skiles Test’s marker. (photos: Ryan Hamlett)

Skiles passed away on March 19th, 1964 and was buried in his family lot in Crown Hill Cemetery a few days later. The estate sale that followed was nearly as legendary as the house itself. An estimated 50,000 people showed up, some to bid on the loads of assorted items that Skiles had accumulated throughout his years, but most to get a up close look at his mysterious property.

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After his death, the property quickly fell into disrepair, aided by a continued stream of trespassers and vandals. Left and Center: The swimming pool’s long slide and high dives. Right: The tunnel between the house and garage. (photos: courtesy of Garry Ledbetter)

The sale over, a bank took control of the property, promptly drained and fenced off his giant swimming pool and The House of Blue Lights and its neighboring buildings slowly fell (or were torn) apart. Finally, the city razed every last structure on the vast property in the mid 1970s.

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Skiles Test Nature Park on Fall Creek Road just west of Shadeland Ave. and 465. (photo: Ryan Hamlett)

After his death, Skiles’ intended for his property to become a Boy Scout camp or a nature preserve. According to his will, as long as the city properly maintains the property, it will remain a city controlled preserve.

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Random broken plates piled within a mountain of rusty garbage cans. (photo: Ryan Hamlett)

There are still a few random reminders of what was once on the property. The workers in charge of hauling the debris from so many razed buildings began to cut corners towards the end of their mission. Near the concrete slab at the top of the hill that once led up to the house, there are random, hidden and ankle-breaking holes in the ground; the explorer in me is just positive these lead into the old tunnel between the house and garage. Old ceramic drains pop up around the property and rusty fences are everywhere. Most oddly, random collections of broken china are heaped into piles of garbage cans so rusty that one should get a tetanus shot for looking at them.

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Though there is little that remains of what was “The House of Blue Lights,” and the legend isn’t quite as widely known today as a few decades ago, it refuses to completely fade away. And there are those who still swear that blue lights may still be seen flickering between the trees, were someone foolhardy enough to walk up the long, winding path into Skiles Test’s woods late at night.

 

Writer’s note: I’d very much like to thank local author Garry Ledbetter for taking the time out of his weekend to talk to me about Skiles Test and The House of Blue Lights. Garry actually worked for Skiles on the farm in the 60s and turned his experiences there into a novel, Murder at the House of Blue Lights, available to buy or download on Amazon.com. Garry will also be on a panel of five local authors talking about their books at the Irvington Public Library at 5625 East Washington St. on November 12 at 6:30pm. Go check it out. – Ryan

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About the Author

Ryan Hamlett, a Fine Arts graduate of Indiana University, turned a teenage fascination with exploring "haunted places" into a love of Urban Exploration or sneaking (not breaking) into abandoned buildings, armed with a camera and flashlight. That passion for photographing urban decay has led him to the Historic Preservation Graduate Program at Ball State University which he'll begin this fall.

16 Comments on "The House of Blue Lights"

  1. Dnabrams October 29, 2013 at 10:59 am · Reply

    More photos of the Test family and National Motor Vehicle Company can be seen here: http://www.chuckstoyland.com/national/history/

    The owner of the website, also named Charles, is a descendant.

  2. basil berchekas jr October 29, 2013 at 2:09 pm · Reply

    My sister Peggy and I remember the House of Blue Lights, but only from Fall Creek Parkway. We never trespassed on his property…

  3. Scott Goodwine October 29, 2013 at 2:46 pm · Reply

    I always wondered what that odd auto with the round radiator was in our old family photos.

    I haven’t read the book, but I hope it doesn’t do any more harm to the reputation of the Test family. They hardly deserve it.

    • Ryan Hamlett November 1, 2013 at 2:23 pm · Reply

      I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read the novel as well, but given the fact that the author Garry Ledbetter, with whom i spoke, worked for Skiles Test and is the caretaker of http://www.houseofbluelights.com (which is underwritten by Skiles’ family), I’m fairly certain it doesn’t cast them in a negative light, if you will.

  4. Deb Stephenson October 30, 2013 at 12:35 am · Reply

    My late father, Gene Carrow, worked for Skiles Test as a young man and was actually the one who hung the blue lights for him:-)

  5. Kyle October 30, 2013 at 6:32 pm · Reply

    Is the current house with the blue lights on fall creek an homage to this old tale?

    • Ryan Hamlett November 1, 2013 at 2:24 pm · Reply

      Which current House of Blue Lights might you be referring to?

  6. George Starkey November 15, 2013 at 8:47 am · Reply

    The “neat” piles of rusted trash cans and broken dishes are the result of an art project from several years ago– if I recall correctly, it was a -create art in nature from found objects- type of event. I’ve walked the property regularly since 1990, and this debris used to be scattered in the ravines that lead to Johnson Road. I’ve looked into some of the china patterns and manufacturers- interestingly, the vast majority of these broken dishes are from long-gone downtown Indy cafes, including Thompson’s and Busy-Bee.

    These ravines also contained great quantities of broken block and wire reinforced glass from the house and other demolitions. Back in the early 90s, you could identify blocks from the swimming pool (they were painted in thick swimming pool paint-my dad was a painter, so I knew what it was) in the ravine that starts right by the drive that runs through the midsection of the property. In the interim years of Parks Dept. personnel clearing any trace of human habitation -foundations, pipes, etc, they’ve either been buried by leaves or dirt.

    Whenever I’m at the park, I’ll collect “new” trash that slovenly visitors toss, and take it to the parking lot for disposal. Meanwhiile, I’ve found a 1950s vintage Coke bottle, and a 40s era Royal Crown Cola bottle in the woods… nothing of value, but still they were part of somebody’s everyday history and can spark the imagination as to what they may have witnessed.

  7. TODD October 13, 2014 at 7:29 pm · Reply

    My father, who was the parks director, was allowed to live in the house and I grew up as a kid living in the “house of blue lights”. I attended Skiles Tests school and uncovered every inch of the building structures. I found many very interesting objects including see through glass pictures of Mr. Tests wives and time cards and letters from the family. I never felt like the place was haunted.

  8. Chris Doyle October 21, 2014 at 10:30 am · Reply

    i used to drive up johnson rd from fall creek pkwy and was always very intrigued by what appears to be a tunnel entrance in the side of a hill just off the roadway, to the east…was that, in fact, a tunnel entrance and where did it lead?

    • chris kelley September 13, 2016 at 8:47 pm · Reply

      I now of the tunnel entrance you are speaking of, I to thought it was a tunnel that had been sealed off, but I have been told it was just a water facility of some type. You enter it and you only get about 5 feet and it’s sealed off by a brick, the structure itself is no larger than a small closet and it has a bis water drain pipe in the floor. A little mysterious if you as me because the house was straight up the hill.

  9. Chris Bowen February 2, 2015 at 1:12 am · Reply

    I know some of the artists who took part in that event in Skiles Test Park. I hope they’d not be the kind who would leave piles of trash behind.

    • George Starkey October 19, 2015 at 11:54 am · Reply

      I was told that there was some arrangement with the Parks Dept., that after the event any “displays” were supposed to be hauled off for disposal, and the only remnants that I’ve seen remaining were of natural materials, not found items like the broken china. There was a large amount of it strewn down the ravine, but one of the artists collected piles of it for their subject– and that has since disappeared or the aggressive flora has consumed it. The heaped piles of rusty trash cans apparently were from this other event and have since been removed from the park. Actually, as of last month, the park seemed very litter-free, aside from the occasional Starbucks cup or Mountain Dew bottle. When I visit, I’ll gather up any items like that to take to the trash cans at the parking lot.

  10. clayton t. sonny oakley December 17, 2015 at 6:26 pm · Reply

    mr. test was a very kind man who I went to work for when I was in the 8th grade. my self, jesse and billy burkes did gardening. later on I helped take care of the cats, feeding, cleaning litter boxes, etc., helping the vet when he was there. during the summer, I would do field work,loading bales of hay and taking them to store in the barns for winter feed. patty brinkman’s grandparents and her father, as well as my father, also worked there. patty is a true lady and she was my high school sweetheart. we both married other people. after almost 60 years we reconnected last year. she had lost her husband and I had lost my wife. this is more than a love story. we talk on the phone and hope to get together soon. by the way, we live 2000 miles apart. not easy to see each other, but I am sure God has a plan. back to the farm, every fri. and sat. night, young people would come out to check out the stories of the house of blue lights. there were times they would chase us in their cars. one night, they caught up and pulled up beside us and stuck a gun out the window. I hit my brakes and they flew by. I turned into our friend’s driveway. when they seensaw the house, thy took off, thank GOD. We were shook, but they took off. we have a few stories like this. there have always been people like these, even back in the ’50s. this is a true story.

  11. John Nelson September 29, 2016 at 9:16 am · Reply

    I lived in Avalon Hills and attended Skiles Test Elementary School in the 60’s with John Micolot. His mom Kay wrote the book you spoke of in the 70’s
    As kids , it was a great challenge so we were drawn to the property like moths to the fire.
    We were run of the property for trespassing many times and chased by barking dogs. Rumor hd it many kids were shot at by care takers with salt pellet guns.
    I never knew anyone we was actually hit but most kids said they were stung by the salt.

    There were many fantastic things to see on the property.
    The animal graveyard was
    Very scarey and the pool was an incredible structure with glass block on the deck in some areas. The brick structire that people saw and thought was a tunnel entrance was a well and pump house at the intersection of Johnston Rd and Sycamore Hill.
    As kids, We never saw any blue lights from 1967 through 1971. We always went there at night as a dare and never damaged any property.
    We did note the rail road tracks on the property and
    There were barns filled with hundreds and hundreds of ketchup, mayonnaise and jelly jars. In the barns, There were plates dishes And coke bottles stacked everywhere. Rumor had it, back then that he was an eccentric old hoarder of the things he loved and wanted to make sure he had plenty of each item since he grew up in the great depression and was one of the few people who had money to do so.

    And yes most of the kids in Avalon Hills in the 60’s heard the story of his dead wife in a glass coffin in the house draped in blue lights. That is why we went at night, scared to death and waning to see for ourselves, if the stories were true.
    One thing for sure, the legend lives on….

  12. Tomas Brinkman March 3, 2017 at 1:31 pm · Reply

    Garry you did a great job, Skiles would be proud of your remembrance. You did not mention Luella, Skiles daughter. She loved the farm and the cats and Kim and Fuzzy. It was great growing up on the farm. Lots of hard work all year. I grew up on the farm and thank the Test family for the kindness. Howdown was our favorite milk cow. Sonny thank you for your friendship.

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