State Auto Insurance Christmas Corner photographed Friday, December 16, 2016.
In the middle of the Great Depression, Robert Pein, founder of State Automobile Mutual Insurance Co., gave Columbus a gigantic Christmas present – one that decades later still brings joy to the city each yuletide.
In 1931, as the nation struggled thru the great depression and unemployment was rampant, Pein had the State Auto Insurance’s building on E. Broad Street decorated with more than 1,000 blinking lights, Christmas trees on the roof and an electric sign proclaiming “Christmas Greetings.”
Pein, who grew up the third of seven children in an impoverished Cincinnati household, was intent on his spectacular Christmas decorations because he recalled that although his family had been poor, “Christmas was somehow Christmas.”
Pein, who died just before Christmas in 1956, called the display a “Christmas card to the community.”
No photos survive of the original display, but The Columbus Citizen newspaper noted on Dec. 25, 1931: “Trinity Episcopal Church boys sang Christmas carols in front of the State Automobile Insurance Co. building on Christmas Eve in the city’s only outdoor public observance.”
On Christmas Day that depression year, the display gave cheer to passers-by on their way to church, friends’ homes and family gatherings.
The next year, the display was back — with 1,000 more lights, four crosses, a star and 853 Christmas trees. “Eight electricians worked around the clock for a week to complete the spectacle,” the company reported.
The display disappeared during World War II years and was downsized during the postwar years while the company’s headquarters were remodeled and rebuilt.
The company’s entire E. Broad St. building, which was now five stories tall, was decked out for the 1954 display. In 1962, the display’s signature life-size Nativity figures were added.
For 50 years, Mary, Joseph and a changing array of Nativity figures have drawn crowds each Christmas season.
In 2009, the display was moved from a raised area in front of the building to a small park to the east, where families can walk among the statues as they follow the story of the birth of Jesus.