Santa Claus has some pretty essential helpers in Hamilton County. Some of them set up the tiny red-sided house with the bright white trim on the Hamilton County Courthouse Square in Noblesville. In 2021 alone, more than 300 families visited Santa Claus there so little ones could tell him what they wanted for Christmas. How did we get so lucky to host the man in red?
It could be a case of, “If you build it, Santa will come.”
In 1963, Noblesville resident Richard Zeiss built the first official Hamilton County Santa House, and the man in red has been showing up ever since.
Both Richard and his wife, Thelma Lehr Zeiss, were born in Hamilton County. Richard was a cabinetmaker, carpenter and sign painter with the heart of an artist, says Dottie Zeiss Young, one of his three children. Art and woodshop were his favorite subjects as a student, and he’d been nominated for a scholarship to attend John Herron Art School. As a young man, he drew comics for local newspapers and worked for theaters in Bloomington, Ind., to create signs advertising their coming attractions. In the 1930s, he used his creativity as a display manager for JCPenney stores in Bloomington, Omaha, Neb., and Davenport, Iowa.
In the early 1940s, Zeiss worked in Anderson at Guide Lamp Corporation, a General Motors Division that manufactured headlamps, fog lamps and other lights for cars including Packards, Chryslers, De Sotos, Cadillacs and Studebakers.
During WWII, Guide Lamp joined the war effort to turn out equipment and parts like Browning machine gun barrels, submachine guns, and military-grade lights for tanks and other vehicles.
“Dad made bombshells. One day he bet someone he could make them blindfolded,” Young says. His supervisor didn’t approve of the stunt but didn’t fire him for it. Zeiss put on the blindfold and proved that he could indeed make a bombshell with his eyes closed.
On the day the war ended in 1945, Zeiss quit his job at Guide Lamp. He wanted to be his own boss and pursue more creative endeavors. He was a founding member of the Hamilton County Artists Association, established in 1950.
“He could see beauty in the smallest things and he could make people laugh,” Young says. “Dad also always loved storybook houses and cottages.”
To support his family, Zeiss worked for Harry Musselman doing repairs for Harry's insurance clients, did cabinetmaking, made intricate dollhouses and painted signs for local businesses. Then someone suggested they build a house so Santa Claus would have his own space and wouldn’t have to be in the drug store during Christmastime.
Zeiss’s original Santa House on the Courthouse Square featured a cockeyed roof and chimney reminiscent of a sweet, oversized gingerbread house. Local art luminary Floyd D. Hopper featured a likeness of it in one of his paintings. After Christmas each season, the house was dismantled and stored in someone’s barn.
In 1964, Zeiss made another gingerbread-style house for a home show at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds. This one was called the “Marshmallow House” and included real marshmallows hanging from the limbs of a tree. The house traveled quite a bit before finding its current home in Young’s backyard in downtown Noblesville.
Young inherited her father’s gift for art. She helped him paint a mural of an ice skating scene inside a second Santa House when the first one needed to be retired. Eventually, that one was replaced by the current Santa House, built by Don Roberts.
The Hamilton County Historical Society manages and maintains the Santa House. It's not too late to participate in this longstanding Hamilton County tradition. Santa will be at the Santa House on the Courthouse Square in Noblesville two more days: Dec. 23, 5-8 p.m.; and Dec. 24, 12-4 p.m.
The Hamilton County Bicentennial is proudly supported by Duke Energy, Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Tourism Inc., and Hamilton County Historical Society.
CREDITS: All photos courtesy of Dottie Zeiss Young.