Most lifelong Indianapolis residents over the age of 40 still light up like a twinkling star at the mention of L.S. Ayres’s Christmas windows. No one was ever too old to enjoy the downtown department store’s seasonal displays, such as the gigantic “dollhouse” seen here. The spectators closest to the windows can be seen inching eastward, around to Meridian Street, since the unfolding visual story began next to the main entrance on Washington Street and continued around the building.
The life of L.S. Ayres’s giant picture windows was always changing and much anticipated. On Thanksgiving night, the Ayres elves—aka the display department—would install that season’s carefully crafted theme in a tradition that spanned decades.
The annually visiting cherub had barely vacated its perch atop the clock from 1953’s holiday stint when plans for the next window were afoot. Like snowflakes, no two Christmas window themes were the same, and the goal was always to best the year before. “How are we going to top the angels?” was the burning question in the display department in January 1954.
What staffers landed on was meant to tug at the heartstrings of elderly shoppers. “The Gay Ninety Period” re-created scenes of an 1890s dollhouse, its elaborate set stretching beyond the windows with temporary additions to the building’s facade.
In-house artists and creatives road-tested each year’s design off-site at a company warehouse prior to installation. Then, Santa’s Workshop-like sounds echoed from behind the glass as set pieces were reassembled, pulling the magical doll-wonderland into place. The dollhouse tableaux began with a boy knocking at the front door of the imaginary house, then progressed inside and through an entrance hall, music room, dining room, kitchen, and girls’ bedroom. Sprinkled throughout each were more than 40 pieces of Victorian furniture, at half-scale, behind moving dolls busying about the space.
The festive Christmas windows went away within a few years of L.S. Ayres being bought by the May Department Stores Company in 1986, and the downtown winter holiday experience hasn’t been quite the same since.
The Indiana State Museum still makes merry each year with one of the last of the jolly mechanical displays, from 1983. You can find the holiday relic just outside the museum’s School Five facade.
Tiffany Benedict Browne runs historicindianapolis.com and loves the holiday view of the Circle from inside the Columbia Club.