Edward Pierre's spirit lives on through Circle of Lights tradition


On Friday night, tens of thousands of people will flock downtown to take part in the annual lighting of the Monument or Circle of Lights.  It's one of the city's best loved holiday traditions.

As Indianapolis resident Carrie White said, gazing at all the decorations on the Circle, "I can't imagine downtown not having something like this - it's such a staple of the city."

But perhaps few have closer ties to the circle's holiday tradition than Lisa Hendrickson of Indianapolis.

"Every time I drive down Meridian and see the lights (at Christmastime) it's always a special thing for me to see," she said.

It was Lisa's grandfather who came up with the idea to decorate the circle, more than 70 years ago. 

"In 1937, my grandfather was walking around the circle on Christmas Eve, he always did his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve and he just noticed how dark and gloomy it looked."

Her grandfather can be heard talking about it in a radio interview recorded many years ago.

He said, "A light could be seen through the stained glass windows of Christ Church, but the monument itself was total darkness....and I made a resolution that some day the monument should fulfill its function at Christmas."

He thought the Circle should be a place where people come together at Christmas time, and if anyone could do it, it was Edward Pierre.

Carol Street, an archivist at Ball State University's College of Architecture, explained, "Edward Pierre was no mere architect."

Street, who oversees the drawings and documents archive, describes Pierre as one of the state's greatest designers and urban planners. She calls the Pierre Wright collection, (architect George Wright was Pierre's long-time business partner) one of her best in the collection.

"They built so much of the city's important architecture when Indianapolis was really coming into its own, with building stock and businesses."

Among other things, Pierre designed the Indiana State Library, the façade for Bush Stadium and many unique homes, including the first five homes in the tony William's Creek area on the city's north side.

But as Lisa says, he was also very civic-minded. She says especially as her grandfather got older, "he was more interested in creating a livable community.  For example, he created a parking plan for downtown when downtown was becoming overcrowded and people stopped going downtown because there wasn't sufficient parking. He was really at the forefront of city planning at a time when it wasn't at the forefront of a lot of people's minds."

As for Monument Circle, with the war going on and money tight, it took several years for Pierre to realize his dream of decorating the circle, which called for a life-size nativity scene.

But through perseverance and persuasion, Pierre was able to raise the money and support for making his dream reality.   

It all came to life in 1945, just after the war had ended.

"He talks about his goal to spread peace and goodwill among mankind and I'm sure the timing was the perfect for that."

Lisa's mother, Mary, hung the first ornament.  Early on, the decorations were simple, mostly  lots of greenery and of course, the hand-carved Nativity Scene, which was made in Austria.

While the lighting now draws huge crowds downtown the Friday after Thanksgiving, the first event drew 2,300 people and there were no lights on the monument.

That tradition didn't start until 1962 and Lisa says it was one her grandfather didn't initially embrace.

She says he was a very religious man and wanted to keep the decorations "reverential...but as he saw how it drew people downtown and became a much bigger event, he did like the idea as time went on."

In fact, Pierre flipped the switch in 1968, when Lisa was just a little girl.  Lisa said it was a momentous occasion for him.  She still has a copy of the speech he gave. 

It reads in part "Thank you for the honor of tuning on the Christmas lights.  May the light of peace that was shining through that first Christmas star, shine again through these sparkling lights into your own hearts."

In 1945, the first Christmas program drew 2,300 people.  It quickly grew into the city's biggest holiday event.

Fifty-one years later "I'm not sure he ever imagined it would be as big as it is today," Lisa said, "and I'm sure he would really like the way it brought the city together."

Street said it's a wonderful legacy for a man who left his mark on Indianapolis in so many ways.

"I think the spirit of Edward Pierre is with us every year when we flip the switch and enjoy the decorations on Monument Circle," Street said.  "It's certainly a gift he gives us every year."