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Beacon of Health: The History of the Methodist Hospital Lighthouse


Not long ago a blog reader sent me a message on Instagram asking whether I knew the story behind the lighthouse which sits atop IU Health Methodist Hospital at 16th and Capitol on the near northside of downtown Indianapolis. I had run across an article about this lighthouse a few years ago but had not researched its history in depth until now.


But first, a little background about the present Methodist Hospital. The original site considered for the new Methodist Hospital was land on the northwest corner of Illinois and 29th Streets, a site which was anticipated to be in an area of high future growth on the city’s northside. Popular outcry to this location, especially from medical professionals concerned about being so far outside of the downtown core, resulted in the hospital’s leadership seeking a new site. Eventually, a new site on the northwest corner of 16th and Capitol was chosen, then the location of a baseball field (Indianapolis was dotted with baseball fields then) known as Tinker Street Field.


Returning to the lighthouse, it is actually called the “Beacon,” and was constructed atop the hospital building in 1933, although planning for the beacon began the prior year. In early 1932 the Beacon proposal was made public. Described as a "health beacon," the president of the philanthropic guild which supported the hospital, Mrs. Edgar Backer, told the Indianapolis News that the Beacon would be "a symbol of the dissemination of health education, pointing the way to preventative medicine and guiding the disease stricken to enlightened diagnosis and treatment which the modern hospital is equipped to give, the health beacon would be significant."


The Beacon was a gift of Mrs. Mary Hanson Carey, a longtime supporter of the hospital and was to be modeled after a lighthouse which sat atop the Royal Hospital of St. Bartholomew in London. Close observers may note the name ‘Hanson’ has other significance to hospital. Part of the older section of the hospital, fronting Capitol (and atop which the Beacon was to be placed), is named the Julius F. Hanson Unit, and was funded through the generosity of Mrs. Carey, in memory of her father, who had been a local businessman, and the vice president of the Belt Railroad Company, and the Stock Yards, Co. Mrs., Carey obtained a seat on the board of the latter following her father's death and retained this seat until her death in 1953. In addition to the Beacon and the Hanson Unit, which had been constructed in 1929-30, Mrs. Carey also funded the hospital’s chapel, among other projects related to the facility.

Construction of the Beacon in 1933. Image from the book "The History of Methodist Hospital of Indiana."

The height of the proposed Beacon required consultation with the federal government about the impact of the Beacon on aerial navigation. An agreement was finalized where the Beacon would remain lit 24 hours, as a navigation aide, and warning, to aircraft flying in the area. This purpose was just part of the Beacon’s role. The Indianapolis Times reported on September 15, 1933, that the Beacon would be "dedicated to the spirit of science and the spirit of the healing Christ."


Prior to the dedication of the Beacon, John G. Benson, the superintendent of Methodist Hospital, told the Times that “[t}he Beacon will say silently that this is a haven of health. It is a symbol of the new trend to make hospitalization available to all who need it, rich or poor.” The Times also reported that on clear nights the Beacon would be visible for a radius of 50 miles. The Beacon would also slowly spin at its top.


The Beacon was dedicated on November 9, 1933, with ceremonies being held at the roof top gardens of the Wile Hall Nurses’ Home, part of the Methodist campus fronting Capitol Ave. Edgar Blake, a Methodist bishop from Detroit, and Rev. Dr. Jean Milner, pastor of the 2nd Presbyterian Church, lit the Beacon using a remote control. Numerous dignitaries were present for the event, including Reginald Sullivan, mayor of Indianapolis. Also, at the dedication Mrs. Carey was announced as the donor who made the Beacon possible (although this fact had been previously reported), although she was not mentioned among the attendees at the dedication.


However, the book “The History of Methodist Hospital of Indiana," published in 2008, told how Mrs. Carey resided in an apartment on one of the top floors of the Marrott Hotel, a few miles to the north at Meridian and Fall Creek. At night from that perch, she would check the Beacon with binoculars to ensure that it was still lit, and that it was rotating properly. If it was not, the director of the hospital would receive a phone inquiring why it was not functioning. The Beacon is identified on the 1938 Sanborn update below. According to this map, the Beacon was 50 feet higher than the surrounding roof line.

1938 Sanborn Map #392, IUPUI Library

As of today, the Beacon still sits atop the Hanson Unit of Methodist Hospital. In the 1980s it was used as the centerpiece for a hiring campaign launched by the hospital, citing to the Beacon which "kept bright our dedication to health, community service, and professionalism."

Indianapolis Star, November 30, 1986

More recently, the nearly 85 years of service for the Beacon resulted in some wear and tear, and in 2015 the Beacon underwent renovation and a rebuild. Completed by Wurster Construction, the project replaced the Beacon’s copper exterior and replaced it “paint grip metal,” while LED lights were installed and a new gearbox for the rotating cross at the top was installed. The Vimeo video below, from the Wurster Construction webpage for the project, details the work done.


With the massive expansion of the IU Health facilities at 16th and Capitol, the future of the Beacon is uncertain. In January of 2023, the Indianapolis Star, in an article by Shari Rudavsky quoted Nick Wojciechowski, the vice president of project planning for IU Health, that the new hospital building currently under construction at 16th and Capitol would feature a Beacon on its south tower, which would be “a modern interpretation” of the Beacon currently in place.


Sources


Indianapolis Times: September 15, 1933, November 3, 1933, November 10, 1933.


Indianapolis Star: November 30, 1986, January 10, 2023


Indianapolis News: January 22, 1932, January 4, 1953






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