By Dianne Lively Yost staff writer
Kathi Russell is in her element. She is constantly moving – greeting her guests, serving tea, taking reservations, snapping photos and making conversation. She does all of this without the slightest hint of stress. In fact, she’s delighted and “in the flow” – that sometimes elusive place where your talents meet your calling. The Madison Tea Room & Gardens at Merchants Hall is more than a business to entrepreneur Russell. It is a destination for creating memories and laughter while seamlessly blending Southern charm and hospitality with America’s fascination with all things British. Russell says she painstakingly deconstructed and reconstructed Madison’s 109-year-old Mapp Gilmore Building, which fell into disrepair. “All of the bricks that we removed were cleaned and were used in the reconstruction.”
In fact Russell says that since the original building was painted blue, the bricks were actually reversed. The Madison Tea Room, originally located on Hancock Street, was reopened in January in the Merchants Hall, named by Russell in honor of the many African American-owned businesses that once occupied the original building. Today, The Madison Tea Room & Gardens is the largest Tea Room in North America.
With more than 9,000 square feet of space, the tea room spans two floors, is equipped with an elevator and has a covered porch off the first level. It can host parties, weddings, rehearsal dinners or simply afternoon tea for crowds up to 300 people. Two, newly installed seven-foot-tall British Royal Guards stand at the entrance at full attention. Then, as you open the door to The Madison Tea Room, in its new location on West Washington Street across from Town Park, the glory of it all takes your breath away – a grand staircase, tables perfectly appointed for tea, magnificent crystal chandeliers and an impressive collection of English hats. “Listen,” she says. “You can’t hear the music over the laughter.” And she’s right. The place is full of people enjoying an outing with friends and family. “I come to work every day happy,” says Russell, who is operating her fourth tea room over the span of 16 years.
According to Madison Main Street Director Ann Huff, The Madison Tea Room at Merchants Hall is a wonderful addition to all of the elements that make Madison a great place to live and to visit. It will be a significant destination to draw tourists and business to the Town Park area specifically. “This will be the photo op focal point in Madison,” predicts Huff as she watches countless tourists stop to get their photo made in front of the tea room with the Royal Guards. “They honestly look real.” Henri Moon, owner of Lilywind Kids, which is located right down from The Madison Tea Room on West Washington Street, said she has definitely seen more customer traffic since the opening with tea room customers visiting her shop either before or after their tea time. “It brings more people to our part of town,” she stated, “and last Saturday the tea room hosted an 80th birthday party that drew a huge crowd of people from all over Georgia.” Another nearby shop owner, Ginger Gardner of Town & Country said, “The Tea Room is a beautiful addition to the Shops at Town Park.
It has an amazing draw and has created a natural flow of foot traffic from her place to ours.” Her Majesty the Queen (aka Rose Mary Hughes) was seen at the Madison Tea Room last week, literally stopping traffic while posing with guests in countless photographs. Barbara Wilner of Monroe Township, NJ was enjoying tea with her good friend Judy Goldstein of nearby Greensboro, and posing for photos with Russell in the beautiful English hats that Kathi encourages her guests to try on. According to Goldstein, Wilner is a tea room aficinado of sorts, with an eye for detail, and The Madison Tea Room exceeded her expectations. “This is the most charming and fun tea room.
It’s so well done, from the bone china, linens to the presentation,” said Wilner. “The hats are just the topper! Kathi, our hostess, could not be more delightful!” Russell says she always wants to bring joy and a truly extraordinary experience to her customers. “They come in as strangers but leave as friends.”
After exploring “all over” the Lake Oconee region with her friend Wilner, Goldstein said: “The Madsion Tea Room is the memory she will take home. It’s magical. I’ve never worn a hat in my life!”