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The Fall and Rise of the Ruins 

"It was New Year's Eve, and in my revelry I was dragging a cowbell while walking from Columbus Circle to The Battery.  I was standing outside St. Paul's Chapel, when I turned and looked up...they were illuminated by flickering gaslights. They scared the hell out of me, looming at me out of the dark.  I've never forgotten it." 

Such were the circumstances of Elmer Taflinger's first sight of the Races of Mankind statues in 1910.  He was 19 years-old and studying at the Art Students' League in New York.  He had no way then of knowing just how closely his fate was tied to those three hulking stone figures or that he would dedicate 20 years of his life to creating a home worthy of them. 

click to enlarge The Races of Man were originally erected in New York in 1898. - FLICKR/DONNA CAZADD
  • Flickr/Donna Cazadd
  • The Races of Man were originally erected in New York in 1898.

Elmer Taflinger spent his youth dreaming of creating something new, of making a thing better than any that had come before it.  He dreamed grandiose dreams, and his zeal and determination were such that it never once seemed to occur to him that he might not succeed.  While studying in Florence, he wrote to his sister, Coral, of an artistic epiphany:

"If I'm right, such a work would change the entire attitude of picture making . . . . It would cast new light on the works of all the painters from the Egyptians or beyond, down to what is to come.  I'm either a fool or a superwise, there's no half-way . . . . If I'm right, of which I'm damn certain, I can do what I always have wanted to do: make a picture better than anyone else.  Make a picture that seems almost to live, more than any other . . . .  Michelangelo used to sign a contract guaranteeing before he cut the marble to produce a work of better excellence than any known existing.  With my new knowledge, I feel like doing the same."

Taflinger spoke then of his painting, but that same drive to create something unique, something that stood apart, would emerge years later in his quest to build the perfect setting for the columns, cornices, and statuary that grace Holliday Park, collectively referred to as the "Ruins."  By that time, the citizens of Indianapolis had formed their own opinions on whether Taflinger was, in fact, a fool or a superwise. 

Before the Ruins came to Holliday Park and long before they became known as the "Ruins," they were the Races of Mankind.  Said to symbolize interracial cooperation, they were carved from Indiana limestone by renowned sculptor Karl Bitter and depict the three races of man--Caucasian, African, and Asian--working together toward a common goal.  They towered over the entrance of the St. Paul Building in lower Manhattan, erected in 1898.  When the St. Paul Building was razed in 1958 to make way for the new Western Electric Co. headquarters, a competition was held to choose a new home for the Bitter statuary.  The city of Indianapolis commissioned Taflinger and architect David Burns to design a grotto for the three eight-ton statues.  Taflinger's design called for the sculptures to be placed in Holliday Park and included a re-creation of the St. Paul Building's façade that overlooked a reflecting pool and two 100-foot geysers of water--a relatively simple design, though perhaps the 100-foot geysers should have been an early hint that Taflinger's tastes tended toward the extravagant.  Their design won.  Much to the delight of everyone involved, Indianapolis was awarded the statues, beating out the United Nations, several universities, and the New York airport. 

click to enlarge Elmer Taflinger's original design.
  • Elmer Taflinger's original design.

However, when the statues arrived in Indianapolis, they languished in their crates while Taflinger and the city engaged in a slow-motion debate about how elaborate the setting should be.  The original, agreed-upon design seemed to be forgotten by both sides as Taflinger lobbied for additional bells and whistles even as the city fought to scale down the initially planned fountains.  Taflinger became frustrated with the city, feeling that they lacked the appropriate civic pride and accusing them of breaking promises.  The city, on the other hand, insisted that they simply didn't have the funds to execute Taflinger's elaborate designs.  And so the debate raged on...for 20 years. 

The statues were not erected in Holliday Park for more than two years after their arrival in Indianapolis, and it was many more years before any of Taflinger's plans were put into action.  A reporter in 1963 called them a "meaningless exhibit, serving primarily as a potential death trap for youngsters," and in 1970, a Western Electric Co. spokesman referred to their gift of the Bitter statuary to Indianapolis as "a mistake we made ten years ago."  But the most vocal critic of all was Elmer himself.

Taflinger was a contentious voice in the Indianapolis art community and enjoyed immersing himself in controversy and debate.  Never afraid to speak his opinion, and speak it loudly and often, he was once called "the artistic conscience of Indianapolis."  In 1933, artist Thomas Hart Benton was controversially commissioned to paint murals depicting Indiana's history which were to be Indiana's exhibit at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair.  Benton was not a Hoosier, which sparked anger and protest in the art community.  Taflinger responded by filing a petition in court to legally change his birthplace, asserting that the term "Indiana artist" was apparently a stigma in his own state and that he desired to be purged of that stigma. 

click to enlarge emily_2.jpg

So it should come as no surprise then that when administration after administration failed to take responsibility for the completion of the Ruins, he didn't keep his thoughts to himself.  Calling it a disgrace, he maintained that the city had no interest in distinguishing Indianapolis and had broken its commitment to allocate the appropriate funds when the sculptures had been awarded to them.  "Isn't it hell that you've got to fight for some good for the city?" he asked.  He openly blamed politics and politicians for the lack of progress on the Ruins, famously remarking, "I think that the salvation of this country in a great many ways is the mediocrity of the men in elected positions . . . . Heaven help us if somebody with ideas ever gets to the top."

Apparently unable to quell his creative juices, Taflinger redesigned the setting for the Ruins 25 to 30 times.  It was as if he just couldn't help himself.   At various points in time, it included a reflecting pool, an ice-skating rink, colored lights, two stages, six flagpoles, over 50 trees, a shallow moat, and fountains spelling out messages in Morse code. 

Nearly all of this was scrapped by the city.  However, the Ruins did develop in unexpected ways.  Throughout the 1960s, Taflinger collected pieces of Indiana masonry, mostly from historic buildings undergoing demolition.  Twenty-six Grecian columns from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent, four allegorical female statues from the old Marion County Courthouse, and a horse trough from Fountain Square all made their way to Holliday Park and found their final resting place among the Ruins.  

Perhaps in an attempt to finally silence Taflinger, the Ruins were officially dedicated in 1973.  But if that was the city's intent, it didn't work.  Taflinger couldn't let the project go.  He continued to propose expansions and additions.  His ideas for the Ruins eventually evolved into an elaborate dramatization of the Constitution and the American government.  About this he was particularly passionate.  It was as if he felt he'd finally found his one great idea, a work that would "seem almost to live, more than any other."  In fact, he even referred to his design for the Ruins as a "living book."  He devised series of trees, stones, and steps, each with special significance, referencing things like the Bill of Rights, the three branches of government, or the number of years it took to ratify the Constitution. 

He thought that the display could be "the greatest historical monument in the country" and "the cultural showplace of the Midwest."  However, the installation again faced opposition from officials and also from John Holliday's descendents on the basis that it didn't align with Holliday's intention for the park to be dedicated to recreation and the study of nature.  Again, most of his ideas were scrapped, with the exception of three large slabs of Indiana limestone inscribed with the first 15 words of the Constitution--"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union"--and the planting of 51 trees, symbolizing the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

To city officials at the time, this apparently sudden turn toward the patriotic must have seemed to come out of the blue, but in retrospect, perhaps it was the inevitable development of sentiments expressed in his youth.  In 1928, Taflinger quit his studies in Europe and returned home to Indianapolis.  Shortly before he departed, he wrote to his sister that after spending time abroad, he had grown to believe more and more in America, adding, "You think I'm crazy, but I am rapidly coming to a love for my own end of the world, namely the Middle West." 

He later lamented that some artists become "inflated with their own ego and try to express their inner consciousness instead of doing something for humanity."  While there are those who would decry the Ruins as the result of Taflinger's own inflated ego, it's evident that he genuinely wanted to honor both his country and his city.  From this perspective, the Ruins seem like a natural extension of his love for America and his belief that art should serve.  He truly wished to serve Indianapolis by bestowing it with something uniquely special.  Speaking of his vision for the ultimate historical monument, Taflinger said, "To complete it would put the city on the top.  I'd like to see the city supreme, if only in one little thing."  Unfortunately, this wasn't meant to be--at least not yet.

Over the years, the Ruins fell into disrepair.  Weeds crept up, and vandals plagued the statues.  A lackluster chain-link fence was strung around the Ruins in an effort to deter delinquent activity. Thankfully, Taflinger wasn't alive to witness this deterioration.  He had died in 1981, with the Ruins ostensibly finished but never, of course, to his satisfaction. 

In 1994, the Friends of Holliday Park, a private non-profit dedicated to maintaining and preserving the park, proposed dismantling the Ruins in favor of building a Nature Center in their place.  Perhaps, given the amount of attention and care that had henceforth been given to the Ruins by the city, their proposal can be understood.  At the time, the Ruins were shabby and overgrown, and many felt they were becoming an eyesore.  It isn't far-fetched to imagine that the Friends thought a Nature Center would be a more productive and edifying use of the space.  However, they were not prepared for the public outcry that ensued once their plans were made public.  Dissenters called the proposal to dismantle the ruins "shocking," and Elmer's cousin, James Taflinger, alleged that the Friends had hidden from him the full extent of their plans. (It would seem that being a bit of a pot-stirrer is a Taflinger family trait.)  Suffice it to say, the Friends withdrew their plans to dismantle the Ruins and built the Nature Center elsewhere.

Fast-forward to 2013.  Today, the Friends of Holliday Park are once again compelled by the lamentable state of the Ruins to take action.  But this is a whole new group of Friends, and they're no longer interested in dismantling the Ruins.  This time, they've launched an ambitious capital campaign to revitalize the Ruins and to create an endowment that will ensure they are cared for long into the future.  Lisa Hurst, co-chair of the Friends' fundraising campaign, emphatically says, "We know that we cannot tear down the ruins, nor would we want to.  They're iconic to Holliday Park."

It's clear that both Indy Parks and the Friends have taken great care to be respectful of the Ruins and of those who love them best.  Before the Friends even started their campaign, they consulted with everyone who had been upset by the 1994 attempt to dismantle the Ruins.  As for the designs themselves, they reflect exactly the sort of consideration that one would expect from those who call themselves friends of the park.  Adam Barnes, the manager of Holliday Park, explains, "When we started looking at how to redesign this, we didn't want to start from scratch and create something new; we wanted to refresh it and really be true to what's there.  When it's complete, you won't look at it and see an entirely different thing; it will still be the Ruins."  Lisa agrees and adds, "We actually tried to go back to [Taflinger's] original concept.  If you go back and look at some of the early drawings before he started adding onto it, it's really going back to that original core idea that actually won the contest."

The Friends' main objective is to make the Ruins accessible to the public, to transform them into an interactive part of the park--not something to be fenced off and viewed from a distance.  Adam points out that the Ruins, in their barricaded state, are not now what they were meant to be.  The new design, he notes, will create "the perfect marriage between Elmer's original vision for the sculptures and the current mission of Holliday Park."  Those new plans include gardens, a fountain, a children's water table, a tree-lined promenade, benches, and environmental features such as rain gardens, bio-swales, and a green roof.  Their signature feature--the one Lisa is most excited about-- is a shimmer fountain, one-half inch of water over a stone apron that arches in front of the ruins in which visitors are invited to play or cool their feet.  The shimmer fountain can also be drained in order to create a concert stage, and there will be two lawns to provide space for performances or events.  Once the construction is complete, the Ruins will be the true center of the park and a natural gathering place for families and community groups.

click to enlarge emily_5.jpg

The burning question that everyone wants answered: when can we expect these new-and-improved Ruins?  Lisa explains that it's entirely contingent on when they reach their fundraising goal of $3.2 million.  It's all too common for a project to break ground before funds are fully raised, only to find that the donations have stopped rolling in.  Right now, they stand at about $2.45 million.  The end is in sight, but they're not there yet.  For those interested in supporting the Ruins, now is the perfect time.  Lisa reveals that the campaign is currently holding a matching challenge.  The Indianapolis Foundation will pay 50 cents on the dollar for any donations pledged to the campaign between now and the end of October.  "Right now, every dollar counts," she says. "If you pledge $10, it gets us an extra $5.  It's really powerful."

What would Elmer Taflinger think of these plans?  Well, undoubtedly he'd be loath to omit the Morse-code fountains, but I'd like to think that he'd approve.  The planned revitalization efforts have been enthusiastically received by everyone; people seem ready to embrace the Ruins.  As Taflinger himself once said, "Art won't be reborn until people need it."  If the Friends' ambitious campaign is any indication, it may be that we need the Ruins now more than ever.  Maybe everyone else is finally realizing what Taflinger knew years ago: the Ruins do set Indianapolis apart, making us exceptional in this one small way.  And whether you think the Ruins are a folly or an inspired artistic triumph, when you've got giant, Grecian sculptures gracing your public parks, it's best not to take them for granted.

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Emily Hinkel

Emily Hinkel

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Emily is happiest when she's knee-deep in the written word. She is wholeheartedly nursing her fledgling freelance writing career and is delighted to be on this side of the pen. Emily shares her living space with a bossy Dalmatian and many, many books.

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