Curious Cbus: What Happened To Gordon Keith's 'World Famous Nativity'?

Dec 24, 2020

During the 1960s and 70s, an industrial area on the west side of Columbus was home to a huge, 75-foot long Nativity display depicting Mary, Joseph, wise men, camels and a cast of other animal characters. The holiday attraction was staged outside the workshop and retail store of Columbus artist and designer Gordon Keith.

Teri Horning wrote into WOSU’s Curious Cbus to ask, “What happened to the life-sized Nativity that was at Gordon Keith's Barn?”

Gordon Elmer Keith was born in Columbus in 1924 and showed artistic talent from a young age. As a teenager, he served in the Army during World War II, making scale models used to plan military strategy. After the war, he set up his first design studio in Boston before moving back to Central Ohio.

To call Keith's career prolific is an understatement. Keith’s son Greg Keith, of Upper Arlington, remembers his father, who died in 2015, as a man with a passion for art and a tenacious work ethic.

“That man never stopped working. He loved to work,” Greg Keith said. “He couldn't wait to get his teeth into the next project.”

In addition to a successful business designing and manufacturing displays for department stores across the county, Keith also created parade floats and museum exhibits.

Keith designed the Talking Tree and other elements of Lazarus Department Store’s elaborate Santa Land, a popular destination for families during the holiday season. He also created the Street of Yesteryear in the original COSI location at 280 E. Broad St. The exhibit was a recreation of what a downtown Columbus street might have looked like on dates ranging from 1840-1920.

This photo from the Keith family scrapbook shows Gordon Keith posing with a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary. It was likely taken by a Columbus Dispatch photographer in the early 1960s.
Credit Columbus Dispatch / Courtesy of Greg Keith

The creation that Keith is perhaps best known for is the life-sized Nativity scene that debuted on the Statehouse lawn in 1961. That year, the Columbus Downtown Area Committee commissioned Keith to create a Christmas display for the holiday season.

Keith and his creative team – which included his wife Dorothy – designed and manufactured life-sized figures of Mary, Joseph, and a menagerie of animals for the scene that was set up on the west steps of the Statehouse.

Billed as “Christmas in Capitol Square,” the display was thought to be the largest and most detailed Nativity in the county. Every aspect of the scene, from the style of dress to the length of oxen horns, was meticulously researched to be as accurate to the historical period as possible.

The Nativity was a success with the public and received ample praise in newspaper columns and letters to the editor. It even inspired one Columbus resident to compose a song of the same name that was published in the Columbus Dispatch that year.

This photo from the Keith family scrapbook shows Gordon Keith posing with numerous animal and human characters from the Nativity. The photo was likely part of a feature story in the Columbus Dispatch Sunday Magazine.
Credit Columbus Dispatch / Courtesy of Greg Keith

The scene was displayed at the Statehouse again the next year, but construction of an underground garage forced the Nativity to travel to City Hall in 1963, and “Christmas in Capitol Square” became “Christmas in the Civic Center.”

The Downtown Area Committee leased the scene for four years, so 1964 marked the end of this tradition. A letter-writing campaign and efforts to raise additional funds to keep the Nativity were unsuccessful, so Keith put the display in storage.

Greg Keith said that concerns about separation of church and state – exhibiting a religious scene on public land – were a factor as well.

Around this time however, another Nativity appeared less than a mile east on Broad Street. In 1954, Gordon Keith was hired by the State Auto Insurance Company to design and install Christmas lights and decorations on the exterior of their headquarters.

In 1962, a year after the Nativity debuted at the Statehouse, duplicates of the fiberglass figures were incorporated into State Auto’s holiday display.

The Nativity scene takes up the entire length of the State Auto building on E. Broad St.
Credit State Auto

In addition to Keith’s design business, Gordon Keith Originals, he also operated two retail outlets which sold gifts, craft supplies and decorations: Gordon Keith’s Decorative Supply House on South Wall Street and Gordon Keith’s Barn on North Hague Ave. Keith’s workshop and warehouse were at the Barn location and that’s where the Nativity was stored after 1964.

A few years later, Keith decided to put the 75-foot long display up on his West Side property. The Nativity again became an annual holiday attraction, and Keith sold postcards with photos of the “World Famous Nativity Scene” that had been “viewed over the years by hundreds of thousands of people.”

Photo postcard of the Gordon Keith Decorative Supply Barn.
Credit Gordon Keith Enterprises, Inc. / Courtesy of Greg Keith

A 1972 newspaper advertisement boasted, “Where else but at Gordon Keith’s Barn can you view a life-size Nativity Tableau outside on a Landing Stage complete with music and lighting nightly ‘til 11 p.m.!"

For many years, Keith stored both sets of Nativity figures and oversaw their installation at both locations. At some point, storing the displays became too cumbersome and State Auto agreed to store them. Eventually, when the Barn closed for business in 1979, the only place to see the Nativity was as part of State Auto’s annual Christmas display.

Overtime, the two sets intermingled as parts of one were cannibalized to repair the other. “We started using our figures to fix their figures,” Greg Keith said.

In the early 1990s, State Auto decided not to hire Keith’s company for installation any longer. This led to a legal dispute over who actually owned the figures that made up the biblical scene.

According to Greg Keith, a key factor in the dispute was that artists can’t copyright depictions of religious figures or symbols. So in the end, State Auto retained ownership of the Nativity.

Figures of Mary and Joseph by a manger in the State Auto Nativity display, 1979.
Credit State Auto

Today, State Auto’s tradition of decorating for Christmas continues and many of the figures designed by Gordon Keith and his team remain in use as part of the Nativity. A virtual tour of this year’s display is available on their website.

When asked about how he would like Gordon Keith’s contributions to be remembered, Greg Keith said his father truly worked for the love of it.

“He didn’t do it to make money. He just loved doing stuff and that’s the legacy he brought to Columbus,” Greg Keith said. “He created so much stuff. It’s unbelievable.”

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