Listen to Hoosier History Live! at 11:30 a.m. each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM. The Saturday show airs again at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. You also can listen online at the WICR website during the broadcast.
Also, you can join us at the Central Library on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. to listen to the live show.
Oct. 31, 2009 show - Mike Ahern on House of Blue Lights
"Only the brave would dare go there - that's what everyone said about it."
-- A member of Shortridge High School's class of '62
For nearly 50 years, The House of Blue Lights was regarded as the creepiest place in Indianapolis. Sneaking around the secluded estate of eccentric millionaire Skiles E. Test became a Halloween-season rite of passage for thousands of high school and college students from the 1920s through the1960s.
The hordes of frightened gawkers hoped to glimpse the corpse of Mr. Test's beautiful, dead wife, which they suspected he enclosed in a glass coffin. According to the urban legend that captivated six generations of Hoosiers, Mr. Test bathed the glass casket in eerie blue lights and sat in a rocking chair next to her embalmed, perfectly preserved body every night. Rocking in sorrow, or so the story went, he kept a lonely vigil at his estate near Fall Creek Road and Shadeland Avenue.
The thousands of Hoosier teenagers who crept around the House of Blue Lights and the surrounding, heavily wooded property included a member of Cathedral High School's class of '56 who would grow up to become famous in local broadcasting. Mike Ahern not only ventured up to the estate night after night with his Cathedral buddies, he went on to cover the demolition of The House of Blue Lights in 1978 during his record-setting, 37-year stint as the news anchor at WISH-TV/Channel 8.
As a Halloween Day treat, Mike (who retired amid statewide accolades in 2004) will return to the air to join Nelson, who for years has written feature stories and columns about The House of Blue Lights that have included rare interviews with Skiles Test's anguished relatives. The fascinating story - which became perhaps the biggest urban legend in state history - involved everything from a pet cemetery to an unusual swimming pool to an amateur inventor-architect from a wealthy family who, sadly, eventually felt terrorized to spend the night in his sprawling home because of the throngs of trespassers.
Myths, facts, distortions and exaggerations - or combinations of them - fueled folklore about the mysterious house, which Mr. Test (1889-1964) inherited in 1913.
But was there a dead wife? What was the real source of the blue glow that emanated from Mr. Test's hilly estate? Was the property guarded by vicious Dobermans as per the urban legend, or were Mr. Test's dogs a very different breed?
Tune in as Mike and Nelson sort truth from myth about the spooky folklore. It so captivated teenagers that, according to a member of Howe High School's class of '50 whom Nelson once interviewed, "Night after night, there were always kids lurking around the property. Chatard kids, Lawrence Central kids, North Central kids, Cathedral guys, Ladywood girls - there would almost be traffic jams, particularly around Halloween."
Here's how a North Central grad once described the scene that involved piling into a car with his classmates: "We would keep daring each other, 'C'mon, let's go further up the driveway. Further, further, further.'"
The House of Blue Lights even developed an unlikely reputation as a lovers' lane. High school boys would drive at night with their girlfriends to the locked gates on Mr. Test's property. The couples would swap stories about the place. Boys hoped girls would get so terrified they would want to cuddle.
Some fun facts:
-- Many of the stories passed from generation to generation concerned the Olympic-sized swimming pool and bathhouse that Mr. Test built on his property. If you believed some versions of the folklore, the three-story bathhouse had been hastily constructed for a grand party to celebrate the opening of the pool. In the haste, every detail wasn't checked, and the railing on the staircase wasn't secured. So when Mr. Test's wife descended the stairs, the railing gave way and she plummeted to her death. But did it really happen that way? Mike and Nelson will explain.
-- Born to a prominent Indianapolis family, Skiles Test grew up in Woodruff Place. An heir to the Indianapolis Chain Works (later Diamond Chain) fortune, he was part-owner of the Test Building that still stands on Monument Circle.
--The hordes of nighttime visitors in the 1950s included Nelson's mother and her sorority sisters at Butler University.
-- An auction on Test's estate after his death lasted three days and drew more than 50,000 souvenir seekers. Police compared the congestion to the Indiana State Fair.
-- Part of the estate eventually became Skiles Test Park. Mr. Test also donated land to Lawrence Township Schools. Today, that parcel is the site of Skiles Test Elementary School.
-- In 2008, Mike Ahern was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
www.houseofbluelights.com - This website is owned and operated by the Louellen Test Hesse family and is dedicated to the memory of Skiles Test. It includes pictures of Test's cats and dogs, underground tunnels, swimming pool, pet cemetery, and a 1937 aerial view of the property.
Much ado about nothing!?
History Mystery question
Our Hoosier History Trivia Mystery question is a carry-over from two weeks ago, when there was no correct answer. Question: What is the name for a small tower that projects vertically from a house or building, usually a structure of a historic nature? This type of tower is attached to the house and often contains a staircase. Such decorative towers can be seen adorning Victorian- or Edwardian-era homes in the Herron-Morton Place and Woodruff Place neighborhoods. Hint: A listener incorrectly guessed "widow's walk" on the previous show.
The call-in number for the correct answer is (317) 788-3314, and the prize is a pair of tickets to the Eiteljorg Museum, and a pair of tickets to Fast Times Indoor Karting at 96th and Keystone, and a pair of tickets to the Eiteljorg, all courtesy of the ICVA.
Photo from B-Levi.com, John L. Ryan House, 202 S. Monroe St., Muncie, Indiana, which has a ____ on a ____.
Roadtripper - Cabaret Poe at the Irvington Masonic Lodge
CHRIS GAHL of the ICVA will call in with a Roadtripper report on the culminating weekend for "Cabaret Poe" this weekend at the Irvington Masonic Lodge. A Broadway-style musical featuring the works of Edgar Allan Poe is timed with Poe's 200th birthday. Some of the pieces re-imagined for the musical are The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Black Cat and, of course, The Raven.
As many of our listeners know, Irvington was the birthplace and home to the only historic art movement in Central Indiana named for a specific place, the Irvington Group. In the early 1900s, this group of artists lived, met, practiced and exhibited art in Irvington. So make the Roadtrip to the Irvington Masonic Lodge tonight or tomorrow night to see the "Cabaret Poe."
Your friends in Hoosierdom,
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Garry Chilluffo, online editor
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Coming up on Hoosier History Live!
Nov. 7 — St. Elmo history with Craig Huse
When the St. Elmo Steakhouse opened at 127 S. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis in 1902, it consisted of only a bar room and one small dining room, which now serves as its kitchen. It's turn- of- the- last- century's Chicago saloon décor has changed little since it's opening. In 1904, the opening of the Indianapolis Traction Terminal spilled thousands of businessmen from interurban lines out into intersection of Market and Illinois, contributing to St. Elmo's success. And yes, we say business "men" because St. Elmo's historically had been one of those "male bastions" of politicking, dealmaking, and celebrating. Although, of course, times have changed, and now even business "men" eat sushi. Though you won't find that on the St. Elmo menu.
Owner Craig Huse will give us the "meat" of the story next week, including the tales of St. Elmo during the prohibition years, the betting in the back of the house during the 1920's, JFK's visit, and the impact of the opening of the Circle Centre Mall in 1996.
Image from Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society.