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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Out of the darkness & into the Circle of Lights

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.

The competing power companies ran ads in The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News on July 4, 1916 touting their respective roles in lighting the Monument.

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 automobiles 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 traveled to Indianapolis in hopes of using the same techniques to illuminate the Statue of Liberty.

The Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1916

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.

Sadly, Schmitz would not live long enough to see the Monument illuminated. He died in Germany two months before the Centennial celebration.

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.

Last night, thousands of people thronged the downtown area last night to see the 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.

In the 117 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.

A few years ago, I was surprised to read in the 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 more than 100 years ago by Pantelis Cafouros  – the illuminated Monument standing tall and gleaming against the night sky.

A version of this article was originally posted on on November 24, 2012.

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Matthew T Rader
Matthew T Rader
Jan 06, 2021

This Christmas tree was incredible to see in person. We visited Indy on our way to Michigan from Texas just to see it and it did not disappoint. I enjoyed reading about the history of it that you wrote here.

While I was there I took some photos of it at night and posted them on my website here:

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