I’ve visited Indianapolis various times in the past few years for business and can’t seem to drive through town without passing by Monument Circle, the huge public space in the center of town, just a block or two from the state Capitol building. European-like in its design, the Circle was named one of America’s 10 Great Public Spaces last year by the American Planning Association and has been the heart of the city for the past century. The area was originally designated the site for the governor’s mansion, but no governor ever occupied the spot and it became Circle Park. In 1887 the Indiana General Assembly formed a monument commission to finally act on an idea that had been suggested many times over the years.
The mammoth Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument towers in the middle of the circle, a stunning memorial to Indiana’s war dead. Designed by German (or Prussian, to be exact) architect Bruno Schmitz, the memorial rises 284 feet above the circle (only 15 or so feet less than the Statue of Liberty). Made of Indiana limestone, it took more than twelve years to build and is crowned by a 38-foot high bronze statue of Victory. It features several statuary groups and statues at the corners represent the Artillery, Infantry, Cavalry, and Navy. The sculptures, by an Austrian sculptor, are detailed and lifelike. But, the young Civil War soldiers they portray originally had beards until a veteran observed that infantrymen were beardless – some said they looked “too German.” The sculptor apparently took the order to remove the beards in stride and remarked that he would become a barber and use a chisel instead of a razor to shave the hair.
The grand dedication ceremony in 1902 included a parade of veterans and a special march written by John Philip Sousa. The final cost for the monument totaled about $600,000 (estimated today at more than $500,000,000). From bottom to top the monument’s interior space is put to good use. In 1918 a museum focused on Indiana’s involvement in the Civil War opened in the monument’s basement. Still open today, the museum offers a pretty decent summary of the topic. Those desiring a grand view can climb stairs or take an elevator up to an observation deck at the top, something I want to do someday.
A walk around the monument reveals many interesting components, including a series of elaborate bronze candelabras featuring symbols of America – the shafts represent stalks of corn and bison heads and whimsical (to me at least) bears encircle the shaft. In warm weather, two large fountains and pools on either side provide a soothing effect. At Christmas, the monument becomes a giant Christmas tree with lights strung from top to bottom, a tradition called the Circle of Lights started in 1962.
After undergoing a major facelift in 2011, the monument and circle are ready to face many more decades as one of America’s great public spaces and memorial to the honored dead of this great midwestern state .