Tea room rises from Younkers’ ashes as modern events venue

DES MOINES REGISTER — The Tea Room is back. More than three years after a fire nearly destroyed the iconic downtown Des Moines restaurant, the former Younkers Tea Room has a new look and a new mission.

Once a ballroom and lunch venue known for its rarebit burgers, chicken salad, and cinnamon rolls, The Tea Room has reopened as an event space for receptions, parties, galas and meetings. Gone are the floral drapes and heavy dark carpet, dark walls and ornate lighting. They’ve been replaced with light colors and minimal decor.

It wasn’t an easy journey. There were years of neglect after the Younkers department store closed in 2005 and the building was shuttered. Then came the devastating fire in 2014 that nearly erased all of the historic tea room’s remaining glory.

Rechristened as The Tea Room — the Younkers name now gone — the venue hosted its first official event last week.

“It is over and above what I thought it could be,” said Katy Nelson, who operates the venue with her father, Mark Nelson, through a partnership with the building owner Blackbird Investments. “Walking in here the first time last July (2016), it was a mess.”

The Tea Room takes up the entire top floor of the six-story Wilkins Building at Seventh and Walnut streets.

Once half of the Younkers department store, the Wilkins Building was spared the worst of the 2014 fire, which leveled its sister building to the east. A giant hole still exists where that building once stood.

But smoke and water damage left the tea room a crumbling and charred disaster.

The Alexander Co. of Madison, Wisconsin, was renovating the building at the time of the fire. The historic building restoration company considered resuming work but ended up selling the property to Blackbird in 2015. The Des Moines-based developer assembled a team from Neuman-Monson Architects, Weitz Co. construction and Modus Engineering to finish the job.

It partnered with the Nelsons, who own and operate Scenic Route Bakery in the East Village, to manage the space.

The Tea Room is a modern, simple space with white walls and grey, black and gold accents. But it’s not all new. Ornately carved trim along with the ceiling and at the tops of columns was painstakingly restored by experts from New York who took pieces of decorative molding that survived the fire and created new plaster trim by hand.

“It was in such a great state of destruction that it is unbelievable that they had the ability to bring it back to its historical significance,” said Harry Doyle, a Blackbird partner. “This is much more than a tea room, it’s a part of the fabric of the community.”

There are other little touches, like the restored black and blue tile in the lobby and Juliet balconies that hark back to the tea room’s opening days in the Wilkins Building in 1925. A small mahogany carved chest sitting near the elevators is one of the tea room’s earlier pieces, Mark Nelson said. Its owner, a man whose father had been a tea room chef from 1951 to 1985, wanted the chest to be part of the renovated space.

“Having grown up in the tea room, he was a wealth of information. We also got menus from him and recipes like the rarebit burger sauce,” Nelson said.

The connection that the tea room has with the community is strong, he said. At an event Wednesday evening, two former tea room waitresses showed up in their uniforms, one sporting a pencil behind her ear.

“That’s the legacy of the tea room,” Mark Nelson said. “We want people to come and enjoy it.”

And it’s not only a treasure for those who remember lunching in the tea room with their grandmothers as children.

“This is a chance to introduce the tea room to a whole new generation,” said Laura Fetter, general manager.

Overall, the event space includes:

  • The ballroom with seating for about 265, a removable dance floor and a stage;
  • The Garden Room, a space for smaller gatherings, with room for about 125 people;
  • The Jubilee Room, adjacent to the ballroom it can seat another 40 to 50 people and serves as a spillover space to the ballroom;
  • The Rose Room, a small, private space for VIPs or brides;
  • A fully equipped catering kitchen;
  • And a bar service area.

Maya Boettcher, owner of Plum Event + Design in Des Moines, has already booked the space for two wedding receptions.

“People are looking for upscale event venues that are not necessarily in a hotel ballroom. Many of my clients want something out of the box and unlike anyone else’s wedding,” she said.

The Tea Room’s neutral colors make it easy to customize for an event, but more importantly, the space has historical significance, Boettcher said.

The Nelsons also are looking to host public events at The Tea Room like a New Year’s Eve party, breakfast with Santa or Valentine’s Day dinner. There’s even some discussion of offering a dinner theater. The possibilities with the new space are numerous, Mark Nelson said.

Apartments, which occupy four floors below The Tea Room in the renovated Wilkins Building, are ready for occupancy, said Harry Doyle, a partner in Blackbird Investments, the project’s developer.

Blackbird spent about $26 million reviving the building that was gutted by fire on March 29, 2014. Blackbird recently finished work on the sixth floor of the building, which houses the revamped former Younkers department store tea room.

The Wilkins Building includes 60 apartments on four floors with commercial and retail on the first floor. Five of the one- and two-bedroom apartments are occupied and three more are leased.

Blackbird plans to build a 33-story residential co-op tower facing Walnut Street in the spot where the Younkers department store stood before fire razed the building in 2014.

Doyle said with approvals expected, construction should begin Dec. 1. The building should be completed in about two years.