It is with great sadness that we mourn the loss of our beloved Marge Tarplee, Downtown’s beautification pioneer and cheerleader. To know her was to love her – instantly! Marge was a passionate woman and we are so thankful that one of her greatest passions was Downtown Indianapolis and its vibrancy. We’ve lost a dear friend, community leader and a vibrant spirit who’s left her community more beautiful than she found it.

In 2011, Downtown Indy worked with writer JoEllen Meyers Sharp to document Marge’s legacy.  In honor of her wonderful life, here is a bit of Marge’s history and how Downtown became the beautiful destination for which it is so well known now.

Marge Tarplee and Lou Ristine both served as beautification committee chairs for the Commission for Downtown.

Marge Tarplee and Lou Ristine both served as beautification committee chairs for the Commission for Downtown.

Until the 1970s, Downtown beautification was a twice-a-year event:  decorations at Christmas, and in May, black and white checkered banners on light poles. Today, Downtown beautification is a year-round activity — more than 220 urns and gardens planted for the seasons, hundreds of thousands of twinkle lights, revitalized and revered historic buildings, well-landscaped green spaces, clean sidewalks and helpful directional signs.

Lighting the Way

Marge Tarplee, the former Indianapolis News and Star business executive, has long been Downtown’s beautification cheerleader, supporter and implementer. In the 1970s, Tarplee took a trip to a convention in Birmingham, Ala. While there, she walked through a park whose trees glittered with lights. When she returned to Indianapolis, she began what was a 25-year campaign to illuminate the trees throughout Downtown.

American United Life Insurance Co., now OneAmerica, was among the first corporations to light the street trees around its new building in the early 1980s, according to Tarplee. AUL illuminated the trees for the Christmas holidays. In 1982, Tarplee assumed the title of beautification committee chair for the Commission for Downtown (which became Indianapolis Downtown, Inc. in 1993 and now DBA as Downtown Indy [DI].)

To bring other businesses along, Tarplee organized seminars to teach executives about beautification. She and others visited the executive offices and boardrooms of Downtown businesses, corporations and not-for-profit organizations to espouse the benefits of beautification and drum up support.

Slowly, the efforts paid off. In November 1982, lights were strung on the trees around Monument Circle. They were lighted during the holidays and special occasions, thanks to support from Indianapolis Power & Light Co., Tarplee said. The “twinkle lights” added to the beautiful holiday décor on the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument, decorated with thousands of lights and then known as the “world’s tallest Christmas tree.” Installed by contractors of Quality Connection and electrical workers of IBEW 481 since 1962, the Circle of Lights® remains a beloved Indianapolis tradition, drawing 100,000 revelers Downtown for the lighting ceremony the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Tarplee led the renovation of University Park, which was designed by Kessler as part of the City Beautiful Movement and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Depew Fountain and statues were refurbished and annuals, bulbs and shrubs were planted. She also chaired a committee to raise money to refurbish holiday decorations on the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument and around Monument Circle in 1999.

The Marge Tarplee Downtown Beautification Fund was founded in 2001 to support Downtown beautification efforts. (Photo taken of Downtown Beautification Committee in 2011)

Downtown Becomes Vibrant

In 1994, DI announced plans to plant nearly two dozen urban gardens, pocket parks, gateways and other green spaces throughout Downtown with perennials, shrubs and other ornamental plants. Downtown development took huge strides forward as the $350-million Circle Centre mall neared completion in 1995. From churches to historic buildings, Indianapolis’ Downtown properties were undergoing facelifts and properties were in high demand. In 1995, with the opening of Circle Centre, DI convened a new Downtown Beautification Committee, under the experienced leadership of Tarplee.

The committee consisted of a group of Tarplee’s community-minded friends, still in existence today, to focus on Downtown beautification and help fundraise for the effort.

To recognize Tarplee’s efforts, DI created the Marge Tarplee Downtown Beautification Fund in 2001 and the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust awarded it a $100,000 grant as seed money. The fund is designed to provide a dedicated income source that would supplement IDI’s beautification efforts as well as honor Tarplee for her efforts. More than $400,000 has been raised for this effort.   Beautification efforts continue stronger than ever today. Every year, DI plants and maintains more than 200 planters and eight landscaped gateways and gardens. Another 12 gardens and gateways that were developed with the help of IDI are maintained by partners. DI presents an annual color scheme and plant list to guide Downtown businesses who have their own landscaping, and for all of the public plantings.

Downtown beautification is one of our strongest assets thanks to our wonderful leader, Marge Tarplee. She will be remembered always and fondly as a passionate supporter and visionary.

See the Indianapolis Star story here: