A new venture: Conner Prairie, Ritz Charles partner for Chinese House renovation, creation of the Bluffs at Conner Prairie


A partnership between premier caterer Ritz Charles and Conner Prairie began being forged roughly two years ago when Conner Prairie President and CEO Norman Burns contacted Ritz Charles Vice President Bill Nicholls.

“We started on a journey at which point we talked about what was called the Chinese House and what their goals were, what it was already used for and its background,” Nicholls said. “Even though I’ve been affiliated with Indiana and Conner Prairie from (when I was) a kid, I had never heard of Chinese House. Myself and my daughter volunteered out there and I thought I knew the lay of land out there as well and apparently did not.”

The Chinese House was built in 1907 on land owned by William Conner. In the late 1940s, Eli Lilly purchased the home for a family retreat. Lilly had a passion for Chinese art and used the house to display his collection. He later commissioned a painted ceiling featuring Chinese symbols and designs.

Some of Lilly’s own paintings are on display in the donor room inside the Chinese House. Items include a four-panel screen in the style of Chinese Shui Mo artworks and a water buffalo, both painted by Lilly.

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The donor board at the Conner Prairie Chinese House.

Conner Prairie and Ritz Charles recently partnered to open the Chinese House and the Bluffs, a pavilion addition, as an event venue for weddings, receptions, galas and other gatherings. The Bluffs at Conner Prairie is enclosed by glass on three sides with views of the White River and woodlands.

“We of course said yes, this is a neat idea,” Nicholls said. “Chuck Nicholls and I went out and did site visit, and that really sealed the deal because we were blown away with the location of the Chinese House and how cool it is when you add the river and the number of heavily wooded acres. In that partnership came an agreement we would partner with Conner Prairie with a quest to revitalize the Chinese House in effort to bring more attention to it and make it a sustainable, viable place.”

After forming the partnership, the fundraising and renovation took only two years to complete.

Carmel-based Ritz Charles, with brought its 30-plus years of customer service experience, has exclusive operating rights to cater food and beverages at the Chinese House.

“We felt over the long run it could be a very sustainable, beneficial arrangement with food and beverage on the event side,” Nicholls said.

Ritz Charles contributed $820,000 to the $3.3 million project. The Chinese House was unveiled to the public in late April when Conner Prairie conducted its annual meeting.

“The renovated Chinese House provides guests a great connection to Conner Prairie’s past and a gateway to our future,” Burns said. “Visitors get to experience Eli Lilly’s former retreat and his love for Chinese culture while having access to nature, views of the White River and a beautifully renovated space for their events. Revenue generated from this partnership and new space will allow Conner Prairie to continue providing unique and innovative experiences for our members and guests for years to come.”

The Chinese House has already played host to three events since the renovation: Conner Prairie’s 2018 annual meeting, a donor’s party and a wedding reception.

For more, visit connerprairie.org.

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An example of artwork on display in the Chinese House. (Submitted photo)

Items on display at the Chinese House

In addition to Eli Lilly’s painting in Chinese Shui Mo style and his hand-painted water buffalo, there are other items on display at the Chinese House. Items include a typewriter found in Lilly’s experimental farm on Conner Prairie’s property on the other side of the White River and a rare graphite-and-chalk-study portrait by Hoosier portraitist Edmund Brucker.