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At Christmastime in 1949, a large and unusual singing Santa Claus made a short appearance in Union Station, the city’s 1888 Romanesque revival train station. The Chamber of Commerce organized the Indianapolis Industrial Exposition to promote local industries and scheduled the show during the holidays when thousands of visitors would travel through the bustling station. Committee members felt that the exposition needed a drawing card to play up the holidays, thus the concept of “Santa Colossal” was born.

Walter Dean Dowell, artist for the Chamber, was charged with bringing Santa to life. He convinced Dow Chemical Company to donate huge quantities of Styrofoam, their new insulating product, and work began in a converted Michigan State Highway Garage in Beaverton, Michigan. Over 100 workers helped cut and carve the white foam. Since Styrofoam is soundproof, the men wore red so they could be located in the event of an avalanche. The giant was brought to the city in 8’ x 14” sections filling four railroad boxcars. When reassembled, Santa stood 54 feet tall, sported 10 foot tall boots, a 57 foot diameter belly, and a mustache measuring 12 feet long from curl to curl. Not only did he look impressive, a sound system enabled him to tell the story of his construction and play Christmas music sung by Spike Jones, Perry Como, Sammy Kaye, and other popular singers of the era.

Efforts to find a permanent home for Santa failed – even Santa Claus Land in Southern Indiana could not find a use for him – so in early January 1950 he was chopped up to become insulation. Today he lives on only in the memories of a few people and in the souvenir postcards that were handed out by the tens of thousands during the exposition. (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company, #109919)

Luckily, Union Station’s head house (now known as the grand hall) survives today. With reduced rail travel, Union Station sat abandoned and was threatened with demolition in the early 1970s until brought back to life in the 1980s. More than $30 million was spent on the restoration and the landmark reopened in 1986 as a “festival marketplace” with novelty stores, boutiques, and restaurants. The concept eventually fizzled, and by 1999 the city leased the space to Crowne Plaza for a conference center and banquet hall.

During the Super Bowl, the space will be leased to the NFL as a posh, ski-lodge-themed corporate hospitality lounge. According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the NFL will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to transform the space into “the NFL House,” a 15,000-square-foot, two-story hospitality oasis for former players and coaches, corporate sponsors, and other VIPs. Components, including an oversized fireplace, are currently under construction off-site and will be quickly installed to be ready for the February 1-5 festivities. Invited or paying visitors wanting to get away from the frenzy of Super Bowl activities will enjoy 22 flat-screen televisions, a bar and two dining rooms, a game room, meeting areas, a Super Bowl store, and events such as music provided by celebrity DJs, wine tastings, and appearances by well-known chefs and NFL players.

My invitation has not yet arrived, but I’ll make sure to post photographs for Historic Indianapolis followers. 😉

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6 responses to “Then and Now: Union Station’s Santa Colossal”

  1. Jeff Downer Indianapolis says:

    I’m afraid Santa looks more intimidating that comforting to me which leads to wonder if that could do something similar for the Super Bowl except the subject would be a football player.

  2. sjudge says:

    Nice – my first by-line when I wrote for the Star, was a Santa Colossus article.

  3. David Yount says:

    Great story! How wonderful to have the photo to share with those who never knew the story. I was there in 1986 for the grand re-opening of Union Station. The grand hall is still one of the finest public spaces in all of Indiana.

  4. Pat Capshaw says:

    I remember going to see The Santa.

  5. Joan Hostetler says:

    Love the giant football player idea for the Super Bowl!

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