The 1949 Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce brought Santa Colossal to life. With the city’s Industrial Exposition approaching, the Chamber sought a spectacle to bring greater attention to the event. Walter Dean Dowell, the Chamber’s art director, came up with a solution: a giant Santa.
Only two years before, the DOW Chemical Corporation had filed a patent for a brand new plastic material that served as thermal insulation, water barrier, and package cushioning. The puffy substance was 98% air, weighed next to nothing, and could be molded and shaped into containers, sheets, balls…virtually anything. Engineers called this pre-Space Age substance “closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam.” You may know it as Styrofoam.
Dowell suggested the Chamber request a donation from DOW Chemical, which would be thrilled to have its new product featured so prominently during the exposition. Dowell himself would mold, slice, shape, and shave the Styrofoam and created a giant Santa Claus, which the Indianapolis could display at its historic Union Station. Thousands of passengers passed through the station every day, but the holiday season would be especially busy. This giant Santa would be impossible to miss.
The Chamber of Commerce wholeheartedly agreed. DOW loved the idea and gave Dowell as much Styrofoam as he needed. The chemical company shipped the material by train to a borrowed highway garage in Beaverton, Michigan, where Dowell and his 100 assistants could work without prying eyes.
A Creepy Kris Kringle
From the start, the project—which had then become known as Santa Colossal—unsettled the workers. Styrofoam might be 98% air, but in sheets eight feet square and over a foot thick, that remaining 2% added up. This awkward, unwieldy material challenged their patience.
Styrofoam also had another unsettling property: whole sheets were virtually soundproof. If the surrounding towers of stacked foam collapsed, the workers’ cries for help would be muffled or silenced. Santa’s Styrofoam innards would become their fluffy tomb.
As a partial solution, all one hundred took to wearing red shirts and jackets. The bright color made them all the more visible in case of a brilliant white avalanche. Ignorant observers would think the workers’ color festive. It was not.
Dowell completed his sculpture and workers filled four railroad boxcars with the shaped Styrofoam slices. The Chamber of Commerce had printed up thousands of souvenir postcards with a picture of Santa Colossal on one side and a brief description on the other. But this postcard didn’t show the giant Santa, only the four-foot model Dowell had referenced during its construction. On the official postcard, the four-foot Santa looks jolly and welcoming. The real sculpture would be…something else.
When the hundreds of foam parts reached Union Station, the workers labored late into the night to put him together. Finally, on December 14th at 2:30 AM, Santa Colossal stood and stared down the dark, silent length of Indy’s beloved Union Station. The behemoth didn’t just dominate Indy’s Union Station, he swallowed it.
The 8,000 pound decoration towered 54-feet above the visitors and his non-shaking belly measured 57-feet in circumference. As the Chamber had anticipated, everyone moving through the station had to move around this foam giant or pass between his boots, each of which stood taller than an adult man.
To further “delight” the children, Dowell had a speaker system twisted and installed in Santa’s Colossal’s body. Throughout the day, his booming voice would recite Christmas stories and play Christmas songs. Under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of Union Station, the poor acoustics would have muddled the music and words into an echoing warble, spurting out of his unmoving mouth every hour, on the hour.