NORTH CENTER — On their way to a Cubs game a few years ago, Chloé Mendel asked her partner, Billy Corgan, if he wanted anything as a present. They happened to be driving down Irving Park Road and passed Orange Garden’s iconic neon “Chop Suey” sign.
“[Billy] pointed up and said, ‘That’d be an awesome gift. I have always loved that sign,’” Mendel told Block Club Chicago in an email. “Of course, my reaction was, ‘Why do you ask me for the impossible?’”
But wait — wasn’t it the Smashing Pumpkins frontman and guitarist who crooned “the impossible is possible” in the 1995 hit, “Tonight, Tonight”? The lyrics proved prophetic.
“I saw on social media a photo of the sign and the words ‘AUCTION’ and I couldn’t believe it,” Mendel said. “I couldn’t miss this opportunity.”
Sold at the Chicago Joe’s auction April 30 for $17,000, the classic sign likely dates back to pre-World War II Chicago and has been an inextricable part of Irving Park’s streetscape for nearly a century. The owners of Orange Garden told Block Club they auctioned the sign in hopes it would go to a preservation-minded buyer, while they plan to retire and sell the business to someone who will keep the Cantonese restaurant going.
Auctioneer Randy Donley previously said the buyer was a suburban Highland Park woman who wanted to repurpose the sign for a different restaurant. Mendel confirmed to Block Club she and Corgan bought the sign, and plan to restore it and hang it in their plant-based cafe and arts venue, Madame ZuZu’s.
The Tribune first reported that Mendel and Corgan bought the sign.
The sign was dismantled Sunday, Mendel posted on her Instagram story.
Although Corgan is touring with the Smashing Pumpkins and performing in Mexico City, Mendel said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make her partner’s wish a reality. After a bidding battle, the sign — which has captured the imagination of generations of Chicagoans cruising down Irving Park Road, often also on their way to Cubs games — was theirs.
“I was so excited to bring home and preserve this beloved piece of history,” Mendel said. “It was meant to be.”
When news broke the sign was up for auction, Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said he initially feared it would mark a major loss for the cityscape.
Once a ubiquitous part of the street wall, blade signs have become much less prominent as legacy businesses close their doors. Miller said the city should consider incentives like tax breaks or subsidies for business owners to keep their historic signs, but he praised the outcome of the Orange Garden sale. Miller also said the restaurant itself has a historic facade that also should be preserved, even as the business is put on the market.
“The Orange Garden sign is really an iconic sign for Irving Park Road, and for the community around it,” Miller said. “But the wonderful thing about this particular situation is we know that this particular sign is not to go to the scrapyard, but it’s going to somebody who has a great appreciation for it. It’d be wonderful to have that same type of interest in the restaurant itself.”
Formed in Chicago in the late 1980s, the Smashing Pumpkins have spent the past three decades at the top of Billboard charts, producing haunting modern rock music that often references nostalgia, memory and loss. For Corgan, the retro “Chop Suey” sign has been shining a light since the beginning, Mendel said.
“We are thrilled to keep a beautiful piece of history for our community,” Mendel wrote. “Billy remembers walking by the sign in the late 80’s during the early days of the Smashing Pumpkins and stopping to appreciate its beauty then. And I am just so happy to bring a smile on his face and make this dream come true.”
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