The Lilly Family’s Hidden History on Cape Cod

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Most of the time I find myself musing on the differences between my Hoosier homeland and where I live now. But sometimes I find a connection that’s so concrete it drives me to want to know more about the circumstances surrounding it. That happened to me a few weeks ago when Peter and I visited the Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich.

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Back Home Again: Brunch at the Ayres Tea Room

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Warm light greets you in the entryway.

From its founding in 1872 until it was subsumed by mergers and stock swaps in the middle part of the last decade, L.S. Ayres and Co. was one of the most successful department stores in Indiana. The eight-story flagship building – and its iconic 10,000-pound bronze clock – at the corner of Washington and Meridian streets is still a notable part of Indianapolis’ real estate landscape.

As an emblem of a now-faded era when those eponymous department stores served as the literal cornerstones of most major American cities, it’s appropriate – and a little ironic – that L.S. Ayres’ famous Tea Room is on display at the Indiana State Museum.

The original Tea Room was an essential part of the full shopping experience provided by a classic department store. Actually, the flagship store initially housed a trifecta of eating establishments – the soda fountain, the Grille and the Tea Room – designed to keep shoppers coming back for more than bargains on clothes and goods.

The Tea Room and its parent company have been absent from the Washington Street building since 1992. But since 2002, the Indiana State Museum has operated a near-replica of the original, right down to the Chicken Velvet Soup. In what is much more than an interactive exhibit, museum patrons like myself who were too young to really experience the Tea Room’s original incarnation can enjoy the same elegance and carefully crafted menu. While according to my mother I did eat at the original Tea Room as a toddler, as she put it: “Your dad and I ate there … you mostly played with your food. Oh, I’m sure you ate mac and cheese or something.”

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