Sunday, December 23, 2007

Santa's Story

The history of Fort Wayne's Santa display
Link (JG)

"The work on the Santa display began on Oct. 7, 1940 and it was fabricated, painted and installed by Thanksgiving Eve – Nov. 20th – a scant 44 days later. That first lighting ceremony was attended by virtually every dignitary in the Fort Wayne area.

The men worked up to 18 hours a day during this period in order to complete the task for the Christmas season.

This display – reportedly the second largest lighted display in the nation at that time – shone brightly throughout the Christmas seasons of 1940 and 1941 but then experienced a three-year recess due to World War II. With the return of peace, however, the display was again erected on Wolf & Dessauer’s south wall in November 1945, along with the timely inscription: “The Christmas Lights Are On Again All Over The World.”

From that Christmas to 1958, Santa and his reindeer made their annual appearance to the delight of thousands throughout the area.

In February 1959, Wolf & Dessauer moved to its new building and, for a variety of reasons, the display began 21 years of storage, neglect and accelerating deterioration. The extent of repair was so bad that several different thoughts of renovation were abandoned."
"Now the second beginning.

It started when Jim Green – a GTE phone installer – discovered the display in an old warehouse during the spring of 1979. His interests in restoring the display were soon matched by those of Pete Cruze and an appeal was made to the News-Sentinel. The resulting picture and half-page article piqued the interest of many people, including that of Don Petruccelli, executive vice president of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce. With the Chamber’s pledge of support, a small but eager group began their labor of love."
"Finally, the big night. Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 27, 1980 – 40 years after it first appeared and 22 years after it was last seen – Santa Claus with his bag of toys and eight “tiny” reindeer was once again reflected in the eyes of our city’s children. Its massive size – 155 feet long, 5 1/2 tons and 24,717 bulbs – was dwarfed by the crowd’s response.

As Bill Latz – son of the man who first conceived this display – said at the 1979 “deer” lighting, “What we are doing here is not lighting a display, we are rekindling an old memory or starting a new one.” And that is what this whole project is all about."

Santa needs helpers
Link (JG)
"The brilliant display on the National City Bank Building, which drew an earlier generation to the venerable Wolf & Dessauer department store for Christmas shopping, has already spent two decades in storage. In the 27 years since it was resurrected, it has become a beloved symbol of Fort Wayne. So it makes sense to plan for Santa’s preservation and for his uninterrupted appearances as the centerpiece of downtown festivities."
"Some of Fort Wayne’s other treasures – the Allen County Courthouse, the Thomas Swinney House and Embassy Theatre, to name a few – are included on the National Register of Historic Places. The Santa display could join the list, according to Angie Quinn, executive director of ARCH, a non-profit devoted to preservation.

“It is the most amazing, unique thing that our city has that no one else has,” she said. “It would definitely be eligible. It is of the right age, it is a significant structure.”

Quinn said the display would likely qualify under a category reserved for “objects.” She offered examples of two Indiana objects currently listed: the Spencer Park Dentzel Carousel, circa 1885, in Logansport and the Flying Fortress, a World War II-era B-17G preserved at Grissom Air Force Base in Peru.

Inclusion on the National Register does not impose restrictions or requirements on its use unless federal dollars are involved. Quinn said the designation could, however, allow the display’s owners to tap into grants for renovation, if the bank were to partner with a non-profit – ARCH, for example."
"The display needs to be updated – its outdated electrical work modernized, its bulbs replaced with energy-saving lights that will reduce its operating costs. And Santa needs an endowment to ensure that his sleigh will continue to fly even if corporate winds change course.

It’s a project many groups could embrace: the Chamber of Commerce, union members whose predecessors worked on the original display, Leadership Fort Wayne, schoolchildren.

G. Irving Latz gave the community a wonderful gift when he ordered up the Santa display, and Fort Wayne National and National City banks have continued in the best spirit of the holiday season by giving and expecting little in return. Along the way, countless contributors have worked to make the display an enduring Fort Wayne tradition.

Before wear and tear or any other threat that emerges becomes the Grinch, the city needs to save its Santa."