Restoring Circle Monument Spotlights   13 comments

In the summer of 2010, I was visiting my grandparents in Indianapolis.  While walking between their house and barn, I noticed a pair of round metal objects under a pile of old roofing shingles.  Flipping one over revealed it to be some kind of large electric light.  My grandfather told me that his friend was working downtown over 40 years ago and was one of his daily visits to the circle.  The city was renovating the historic Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the workers were throwing away all of the old copper spotlights.  Knowing that my grandfather was considering installing lights in the tree line across the lake from his house, the friend asked to save two lights from the trash.  My grandfather was delighted by the find, but with no wiring to power the lights, the lights were never installed.  They sat in the dirt for over 40 years going mostly unnoticed.  My grandfather was somewhat reluctant to give up on his dream of lighting the trees across the lake, but agreed to allow me to attempt to restore the lights. 

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1965 Aerial View of Monument Circle

Image Reference: Digital Image © 2008 Indiana Historical Society.
All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

I took the lights down to the picnic table beside the cottage and began an inspection.  Both were coated in mud and badly corroded.  I could tell that they were metal, but was not sure of the type.  The glass was so dirty that you couldn’t see inside.  Luckily, the latches and hinges for the glass doors still worked.  Both lights were full of water and dirt but amazingly, one of the giant light bulbs was still intact.  (I later had a friend help me run power to the original socket and IT WORKED!!, but would have been far too powerful for indoor use).  The lights had a metal reflector inside to focus the beam of light at a specific point.  The large metal brackets / stands took some elbow grease to get moving but still functioned well.  I knew I wanted to polish the metal, so I started gradually removing the small screws that held the reflector and glass in place.  Many of these turned out to be copper and were very soft.  They were severely corroded but a salt and vinegar soak loosened them up.   I was careful not to strip the screws or bend the heads for the most part.

The electric fixtures were soldered in and were in terrible shape so I decided to take a hack saw to the central copper pin that held them in place (and came out the back of the lights).  I’m sure restorers are cringing at that, but I figured it was worth it to get them in working order again.  The glass was scrubbed with a coarse soap, run through the dishwasher and finally washed with Windex and came out pretty clean and clear despite a few deep scratches.

Restoring the metal was a much harder project.  I first tried to do this myself with salt/vinegar which is a known copper polish alternative but didn’t touch this tarnish.  I also tried catsup which is mostly vinegar/salt, that was no good either and kind of sticky.  Finally, I used a high grade copper polish but even with a powered polish tool, it wasn’t coming clean.  The lights went in the trunk of my car and went with me to look for help.  I found a metal shop with a concentrated acid dip.  To my amazement, this failed too!  They suggested that there was likely a varnish or weather proofing over the metal that was preventing access to the bare metal.  My next stop was a shop with a silica bead blaster.  This is similar to sand blasting (again, not recommended for restoring antiques!) except the sand is melted into small spherical beads that cause much less scoring and damage to the metal.  The guy at the shop was able to remove the varnish and corrosion from not only the lights, but the tiny screws and hardware too.  They looked great!

After silica blasting, the metal (copper and brass) was gorgeous, but had a matte finish and was not shiny like polished copper.  I again tried manually polishing, but this was VERY slow going and the results were not consistent.  I found shops that would do the work for me, but it will cost nearly $500 a light, so that is definitely on hold for now. 

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Next, I went to a local lamp shop and bought fixtures and wiring to attempt to modernize the electrics.  I found that standard lamp center threaded piping fit perfectly through the back brackets of the lights and I bought small copper caps to hide the threads on the outside.  The sockets are free standing in the center of the light and there is a C bracket in the middle of two pieces of piping where the wire can exit through an original power hole in the side of the light.  Finally, I found “Edison Style” incandescent light bulbs online with long looped filaments that look great glowing inside the lights.  The metal reflectors were intentionally left out for now to allow the light to spread evenly and not be focused on a specific spot.  I have the lights linked to a dimmer switch so the light can be set low and cause a reflect off the copper interior to emit a warm orange glow.  I found a man in Illinois who was selling antique tripods which I modified to hold the lights and set them up in the corners of my apartment.  They’re certainly a conversation piece!

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Later, I found a few examples online of people who had restored very similar GE spotlights and sold them online typically in auction form.  One of them sold for several thousand dollars!  Mine are not for sale but rather will remain a family treasure.  Thanks to my grandfather for letting me restore these beautiful lights, to his friend for saving them from the trash, and to the many people who helped me figure out how to bring these beauties back to life.

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Posted May 2, 2011 by chrislux in Technology

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13 responses to “Restoring Circle Monument Spotlights

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  1. Hey I would like to say that these are awesome and the effort taken to make this WEB site is incredible. I have got two of these GE Copper Spotlights that came from the Olympic swimming pool near where I live. I got them in the 70’s when they were replacing the lights with Sodium Vapour spot lights.
    I was wondering if you knew what year they were made.. Some people say 30’s but mostly no one is sure.. There is not a lot of info on them on the WEB..

  2. Thanks Craig! Nice to know someone is reading my stories once in awhile. I don’t know what year they’re from. I would guess late 30’s early 40’s. Did yours need much restoring?

    • Hi Chris, I am just starting out restoring them, one is the same as yours and the other one doesn’t have GE on it and has a seam in it that goes right around the perimeter 2-3 inches from where the clips are to hold the glass in. It has a refractive glass in it. The GE one has a flat normal glass with a globe that has ridges in it .. One light must use the glass for the foacal perspective and the other the globe!! One of mine has dents in it and I looking at getting a guy that restores trumpets and tubas to panel beat it. It is going to cost a fair bit to do this. I am then going to get them bead blasted like you did.
      Fun Fun Fun..

  3. Hi, I own a antique copper GE spotlight and would like to sell it. Can you point me in the correct direction please. Thank you for your time.

  4. This is a fantastic write-up! Thank you for your attention to detail, and for posting this story. I’ve managed to acquire one of these lights and will begin the media-blasting soon. It’s such a beautiful piece. I do have a question for you: The glass panel on my light was damaged during shipment, and I’m not sure where to begin looking for a replacement. Do you have any idea where such a thing might be found?

    brigandballoonist
    • Thanks for the kind words! My glass is a little etched but overall is intact. I have no idea where to find an original replacement but I’m sure a glass shop could make something workable. Let me know what you come up with!

      • Do you know what type of media, and what size was used to safely strip off the paint?

        brigandballoonist
      • It was silica bead blasting. I don’t know any more detail than that. How I understand it is it’s like sand blasting but the sand is melted into smooth spheres to minimize sharp edges.

      • I got my Circle Monument “bright dipped” at a metal platers. It cleaned it up ready to polish..

      • I dipped mine too, but it didn’t do anything because of the coating. I thought about having them polished, but it was too expensive and I think it looks kind of cool un-polished.

        BTW – Are we calling these lights ‘Circle Monuments’ now? I’m guessing it was a typo, but I thought it was interesting. Do you have any pictures you can post?

  5. I have one of these spotlights but i need a replacement contoured glass, does anyone know where i can get this from. The glass in the above photos is clear however doing a Google images search under ge copper spotlight the original glass is contoured

  6. I have one of these and am like you ,looking for a glass lens …..16 inch .Did you ever find one ? kurtdunajski@yahoo.com

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