Small Cheval’s initial proposal for its signage hit a snag Thursday when members of Wilmette’s Appearance Review Commission expressed negative feedback and concerns about how it may clash with the historic location.
Last year, Small Cheval — a spinoff of renowned burger restaurant Au Cheval with several Chicago locations — announced that it had purchased the historic former train station, 1139 Wilmette Ave., from the Village of Wilmette. At the time, it was occupied by the restaurant Depot Nuevo, which closed in August after owners Rob and Ann Garrison struck an agreement with Small Cheval representatives and decided to retire.
The building is a local landmark built in 1874, and the Wilmette Village Board approved Small Cheval’s general plans for the restaurant in August. Village officials expect the restaurant to be open in late spring.
At Thursday’s meeting, Small Cheval was requesting a zoning variance to construct a large sign on the roof of the depot. A version of a rooftop sign can be seen at other Small Cheval locations, but Wilmette does not allow signs on building roofs.
Architect Corey Dunne, of firm Dunne Kozlowski, went over the proposed sign with commissioners, describing it as a “traditional marquee sign” with channel letters, composed of painted metal and containing light bulbs within them.
Figuring out a location for the sign on the local landmark was a challenge, said Dunne, who added “we looked at a bunch of different options” for the sign and the roof was the best location based on the depot’s architecture style.
“We felt (it was best to use) something where, if you can kind of lift it off of the structure, it can kind of be independent of it and you can still see the history of the building beyond and through the sign,” he said.
Dunne also acknowledged the size of the sign itself. He said three of the proposed letters would be 6 feet tall, while the average size of the letters in the word “Small” would be 36 inches, while “Cheval” would be 42 inches.
“It’s not a small sign, but it is something that we think is appropriate for the overall scale of the building, and the look that we’re going for,” he said, adding the sign’s design is part of Small Cheval’s branding and on all of its Chicago locations.
As soon as commissioners began their discussions on the sign, it became clear that it had no support among them. All five present commissioners expressed negative opinions of both the sign and its location on the roof.
Commissioner Richard Brill, who said he used to serve on Wilmette’s Historic Preservation Commission, noted that he could not think of another business in Wilmette that has a roof sign.
Though Pit & Tap, also in downtown Wilmette, used a temporary rooftop sign for its six-week holiday pop-up experience, Deck the Halls.
Brill said the ARC has received letters from residents expressing concern about the size.
“It’s so huge; it just calls total attention to itself,” he said, “(It’s) totally unlike any other neighborhood building.”
Commissioner Jonathan Zee agreed.
“We’re looking for practical solutions that we for both the collective community that we have here and for the business neighbors,” he said. “I just have to put on my neighborly hat for a second and say many of the neighbors to this building and this business are very careful about their scale of signage.”
He also questioned whether Small Cheval needed such a large sign for its branding.
“Small Cheval, given the regional or even the Chicagoland awareness of the brand, (I don’t know) that it really needs this,” Zee said.
While all commissioners expressed negativity surrounding the sign, Commissioner Douglas Johnson suggested that Small Cheval’s representatives return with alternative options.
“What I would look to you for are solutions,” he said. “It’s hard for us to say, ‘Well, what if you put it here? What if you put it there?’”
He later added that “there are a number of different possibilities,” including stating that perhaps the representatives would consider a sign on the ground.
And Commissioner Jeffery Saad said he wants to see Small Cheval in Wilmette.
“We all want more restaurants here,” he said. “I’ve seen, in the last seven years, the transition of the downtown into a much more vibrant, much more active … place to be rather than a no man’s land of activity.”
Instead of taking a formal vote rejecting the proposal, commissioners instead voted to continue the hearing to a future meeting. Dunne said he and other Small Cheval officials would meet and return with alternative sign designs.
Additionally, commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a certificate for exterior modifications to the building, which include lighting and landscaping. Commissioners Brill and Johnson voted against the certificate, saying they felt it did not meet the standards for review.
Because of the depot’s landmark status, the proposed exterior modifications, excluding the sign, will go to the Village’s Historic Preservation Commission for review.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.