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When his second son was born in April 1913, Greek immigrant Pantelis L. Cafouros was hard-pressed to find a way to top the fireworks that had literally heralded the arrival of his first-born son in August 1911.  As per the custom in his native Greece, a gleeful Cafouros had fired 21 “bombs” from the roof of his restaurant on West Maryland Street, thrilling thousands of Indianapolis residents who watched the 10-minute display of pyrotechnics. 

Cafouros was just as delighted with the birth of his second son some 20 months later, declaring himself to be “the happiest man in Indianapolis.” But Greek tradition reserved the 21-gun salute for the first male child. So the proud father turned to something uniquely Hoosier as a way to commemorate the latest addition to the Cafouros household.

“Although I am not a rich man,” Cafouros told The Indianapolis Star, “I would be willing to give $500 to a fund” to illuminate the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at night. “It seems that something is lacking about the beautiful structure.”

A postcard from the early 1900s shows Victory shrouded in darkness.

 Indeed, something was missing.  In the 20 years since Victory had been hoisted to the top of the Monument, only daytime visitors had seen her face.  Four candelabra stood at the base of the Monument, lighting the sculptures near the ground but casting the rest in murky shadows.  By night, the top half of the Monument was veiled in darkness. 

 Cafouros took his idea to the Monument’s Board of Control, which expressed initial enthusiasm for the proposed project.  When his plans were still pending a month later, however, the board strung temporary lights around the base to illuminate the Monument during an encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. The lights were removed at the end of the meeting, and the Monument remained dark for the next three years. Cafouros’ proposed tribute to his second son never came to fruition.
 
As the state’s Centennial approached in 1916, two rival electric utilities saw the obvious marketing potential of a fully-lighted Monument serving as the centerpiece for the massive July 4th celebration. The Indianapolis Light & Heat Company announced in June that it would position floodlights on the roof of its Monument Circle building to bathe the Monument in light.  When delays appeared to jeopardize the Indianapolis company’s grand scheme, the Merchants Heat & Light Company quickly stepped in and announced on July 3 that it would illuminate the Monument with 25 floodlights placed atop the Hotel English, the Fletcher Savings & Trust building, and the Waverly.  And if the view of Victory shining down from a night sky was not enough to entice the crowds, Merchants would also throw in a free concert from the Indianapolis Police Department band.
 
 
Not to be deterred by its rival’s announcement, the Indianapolis company scrambled to complete its own preparations.  At 7:30 p.m. on July 4, 1916, Indianapolis Light & Heat Company threw the switch on its battery of lights, and the Merchants Heat & Light Company followed suit a half hour later.  According to The Indianapolis Star, “[a]s the latter company’s lights were projected upon the Monument the band broke into a medley of patriotic airs.  Necks craned, and there were audible expressions of wonderment and admiration everywhere in the throng.”  The crowd dispersed after the concert, but a steady stream of autombiles poured in from both the north and south, as motorists from miles away were drawn by the site of the luminous Monument towering in night sky.
 
The Centennial illumination of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was hailed as a feat of electrical engineering. Indianapolis was the first city in the United States to light a monument of such great size.  Engineers from New York City travelled to Indianapolis in hopes of using the same techniques to illuminate the Statue of Liberty.
 
The idea of lighting the Monument actually originated with its designer, Bruno Schmitz, who envisioned a ring of bronze lamps lining the outer rim of the Circle.  This plan was vetoed by the Monument’s commissioners, however, who believed that the lamps would not cast sufficient light. Instead, Schmitz was asked to install four candelabra at the base of the Monument.
 
In 1924, Carl Lieber proposed an upgrade to the Monument’s lighting,  arguing that the candelabra were not part of Schmitz’s original design.  A campaign to raise $20,000 for new lighting was launched, and four years later, floodlights were finally installed in the base of the candelabra.  The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument has been illuminated year-round since 1928, and decorated for Christmas since 1962.
 

The World's Largest Christmas Tree could have been the World's Fattest Christmas Shrub if the design by Chicago architect Frederick Baumann had been selected. Other what-might-have-beens include the GAR's prototype (top left), the design submitted by New York architect Richard M. Hunt, and Bruno Schmitz's approved design before the wings were plucked from Victory.

According to this morning’s edition of The Indianapolis Star, “tens of thousands” of people thronged the downtown area last night to see the 50th lighting of the World’s Largest Christmas Tree.  The annual event has become a cherished family tradition, with parents who delighted in the Circle of Lights as a child now sharing the experience with their own children.
 
When I first moved to Indianapolis, I was somewhat bemused by all of the fuss over the so-called “World’s Largest Christmas Tree.”  Not to state the obvious, but a limestone statue is not a tree of any sort, Christmas or otherwise.  Further, the tradition of stringing colored lights on a monument honoring fallen soldiers and sailors seemed a little strange, if not inappropriate. But over time, I have come to appreciate the Circle of Lights as a fitting tribute to the Hoosiers who sacrificed to preserve our way of life.  
 
In his message to a special session of the legislature in November 1865, Gov. Oliver P. Morton said, “Let us honor the dead, cherish the living, and preserve in immortal memory the deeds and virtues of all, as an inspiration for countless generations to come.”  For the next 22 years, legislators would argue about everything from the location of the proposed monument to its cost, and even debate whether a home for Civil War widows and their children should be built in lieu of a monument.  But from day one, there was strong consensus that any tribute to Indiana’s Civil War soldiers should both honor the dead and celebrate the living.
 

Souvenir plates featuring the Monument are readily available, but some of the more uncommon Monument mementos are pictured above. The compass, demitasse spoons, and lithgraphed tin egg were all spotted recently on eBay. The ashtray with two piglets peeking over the top is in the collection of the Indiana State Museum.

In the 110 years since its dedication, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument has been the site of thousands of celebrations and has become the icon for the city of Indianapolis.  Millions of tourists have snapped its photograph, while its familiar image has graced everything from postcards to seed sacks to salt and pepper shakers.
 
So I was surprised to read in the November 12 Indianapolis Business Journal that a focus group comprised of residents and convention planners from other Midwest cities had a mixed reaction when shown photos of the Monument.  According to the IBJ,  the focus groups disliked a photo of the Monument shot on a sunny afternoon, but responded much more enthusiastically to the view envisioned nearly 100 years ago by Pantelis Cafouros  – the illuminated Monument standing tall and gleaming against the night sky.
 

The former J.C. Penney store can be seen in the background of this 1960s postcard for the Circle of Lights

The Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument has been used to market a wide range of made-in-Indy products for more than 100 years, including seeds, paint and beer.

 

5 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: Out of the darkness and into the Circle of Lights”

  1. basil berchekas je says:

    LOVE this history of the “Monument”, and I know Carl Cafouros, their descendent. Wish to stay with this blog!

  2. Jason allen cafouras says:

    Its so amazing .I can’t believe I’ve been in indianapolis my whole life and I have never stopped to appreciate all it has to offer.

  3. D MIKELS SHEA says:

    Libby: Loved and am printing out this wonderful piece and also to share a couple miscellaneous Mon.Circle “fact and fiction” information.

    1. The genesis of turning the Monument into WLargest Xnas Tree–these are facts I remember from my mid-40’s into the mid’50’s newspaper stint at the old 214 W. Maryland INDIANAPOLIS TIMES–and similar happenings at both the Star and News in that era. The Times’ second floor, somewhat shabby City Room was usually phones ringing, overhead carrier whizzing, across-the-room at the top of lungs activity. And, amidst all this, often a visitor would climb the stairs and pause at the door–some local VIP coming to campaign for some worthy cause wanting to confer personally with the editor. He or she would be red carpeted into the more sedate private office of the Editor–and we were taught to be differential and listen, even if the visitor’s quest was something bordering on the ridiculous….as it was perceived in those pre-holiday visits of distinguished architect Ed Pierre, His quest? He had an idea, sketches, and an almost obsessive plan to (of all things!) string hundreds of colorful Christmas tree lights from the base to the top in a pyramidal fashion to create (his words) “The World’s Tallest (or perhaps Largest) Christmas Tree.

    I don’t recall the exact years, I don’t remember when his visits became less and less laughable–and when his idea began to get ink—but those old editions of the 3 local dailies document it as a little-known history of today’s Yule on the Circle. FYI

    2/ From fact to what surely must be fiction–but a tale we grew up with from our strait-laced pioneer Grandmother who came to Indiana in a covered wagon settling on the outskirts of Marion, In.–the house still there today. She was not one to join the ladies who lunch and gossip. Instead, the friends who gathered at her house were those who policed the morals of not only their own daughters but also any young ladies in the neighborhood–especially those perceived to be a little “fast” or in their words (which I never understood as a child and still don’t!) “she is probably no better than she should be.” That was the harshest description that wa issued when a young lady’s wedding date and birth of first child was closely monitored–the date written on the calendar to be checked 9 months later–and that is the time that this story was told and re-told about the Monument in far away Indianapolis In.
    Get the picture–no electricity, no radio, early on no telephone and a tiny widow trying to help raise her 2 small granddaughters just before and during the Depression years. She would put us on her lap in front of the pot bellied parlor store and rock us as she read Bible stories–or shared guarded morality stories–such as one about the “new” Circle Monument—as a treat she would check out from the Library a stereopticon with “slides” of the Monument pointing out its features–especially those projecting “arms” that thrust out on both sides. And this was the “tale” that she repeated pointing to those “arms”

    According to her, an unnamed, unwed young lady (one who was clearly in the “no better than she should be” column did the unthinkable, —she gave birth to an infant without the benefit of a wedding fring and as a result was shunned, everything but a letter A branded on her in her small town. And, again according to the story, she boarded the interurban which then ran from Marion to Indianapolis–and with the new infant in arms wrapped in a blanket, she climbed the stairs to the top of the Monument up into what was the observation area (then not protected by glass.) “When no one was looking…” the tale went “she stepped as far forward as she could and dropped the tiny infant out the ledge …”

    Then, according to the tale, as those who witnessed this screamed out in horror–the unthinkable happened. Instead of plummeting to a cerain death, the infant’s blanked snagged on the projecting “arms” and the baby’s life was saved. Tha’s where the story ended. My sister and I grew up wondering what ever happened—but we wondered even more what a wedding ring had to do with having a baby!

    So Liz–since there is nobody left in my family (I am 91) I am sharing with you –fact or fiction?

    And last, about the picture plates and depictions of the Monument–I am closing up and clearing out my home of 62 years and among items to sell for a relative is a small collection including a very old Delft dinner plate, and several magnified glass paper weights. No idea how to price or to find collector? Any wisdom?

  4. Greg Cafouros says:

    Pantelis Cafouros was my grandfather. The story goes in our family that lighting the Monument had a secondary benefit. It would also lure people traveling through Union Station to go see the lighted Monument and right past his restaurant at the corner of Maryland and Illinois, Devil’s Cafe and Paradise Cafe.

  5. Bob Palma says:

    Great story and good writing, Libby. Thanks. BP

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