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Photograph: Courtesy of Riané HumanWhitney LaMora and Zoe Schor.

The owners of Split-Rail are raising funds for a queer-focused event venue

Villanelle will open in the former restaurant space if it reaches its Kickstarter goal.

Lindsay Eanet
Written by
Lindsay Eanet

In the fall of 2023, Zoe Schor and Whitney LaMora went on their honeymoon to Europe, taking in the hospitality culture wherever they went, from the lively pubs of London to the picturesque Parisian brasseries. 

“I was struck by and obsessed with the super dense florals,” LaMora says. “It's not reinventing the wheel of what can be an impactful design choice. Here's this overgrown beauty, something that's really striking from afar. I just want to be at a table under those flowers, and it was very inspiring.”

Now, the couple, who co-own lesbian cocktail bar Dorothy, have announced a new venture—one that could have a place in many queer Chicago love stories to come. 

In November, pivoting from the impending closure of Schor’s Humboldt Park restaurant, Split-Rail, and The Martin, the adjoining gallery space founded by LaMora, the duo launched a hospitality collective, Drinking Policy. Now, they’re seeking to raise $75,000 this month to open Chicago’s first and only queer-focused wedding and event venue. 

The name they chose? Villanelle, a nod to the inspiration from their honeymoon in France, the name of a beautiful and distinctive form of poetry, and, as an added bonus, the name of one of the most popular queer women television characters of the past decade, the assassin played by Jodie Comer in Killing Eve (LaMora says she and Schor are fans of the show). 

LaMora says it feels like a natural evolution of the space, and calls it “Version five” of Split-Rail. 

“Post-quarantine, we saw weddings in the Split-Rail space and in The Martin and found that to be really exciting to throw,” LaMora says. “We got married in September in [Schor’s] parents’ backyard but we took our reception to Dorothy. It would have been a little too close to home if we’d had the ceremony upstairs—a glass breaks and now we're clocked in.” 

Villanelle would offer in-house catering from Split-Rail, and according to the Kickstarter campaign, clients could choose from offerings such as Schor’s signature fried chicken and biscuits, French bistro-inspired fare or to work with Schor and her team to design an ideal custom menu. The design elements of the space are inspired by their Parisian honeymoon.

“Zoe cooks to the Josephine Baker radio station, so we have a lot of French-inspired music playing in our home, and that definitely connects it to us,” LaMora says.

The concept has come together quickly, LaMora says, in the wake of the December 2023 closure of Split-Rail after six years of operation. They were met with an outpouring of support.

“We went into our last month of service knowing we would be crushed and that we would hear a lot from the neighborhood, and it began to get really overwhelming in a positive way, just the emotion people shared with us, milestones they shared at the restaurant,” she says. “We're very much of the neighborhood, in the neighborhood.”

LaMora says a motivating factor in the desire to reshape the space was a desire to ensure the space above Dorothy would remain a safe and welcoming space for the bar’s clientele.

“They may never go back to that restaurant, but if someone says something not welcoming or we're associated with a space that's not us, that impacts us and our community,” LaMora says.

The fundraiser’s campaign page opens with the phrase, “Because being ‘queer-friendly’ is not enough,” differentiating between a venue with practices affirming of the LGBTQ+ community and one that centers that community, and is owned and operated by that community. That difference is the one people note.

“When you meet with a queer couple to sit down to plan your queer wedding, that makes a difference,” LaMora says. 

That difference between a queer-friendly venue and a queer-centered venue may be hard to define, but for LaMora, it comes down to a level of comfortability.

“It’s removing any layers of nerves,” she says. “Whatever concerns you may have around what your wedding party looks like, how you’d like your wedding to run, what you’d like to be called—knowing that you get to define what that looks like because you’re in a space like ours, I think all of those elements are part of a queer-centered space.” 

LaMora says the team expects to hold large celebrations like weddings, but she also hopes the community guides the team in ways they are not anticipating. 

“I have a fantasy around coming-out celebrations, throwing parties for folks who got top surgery and can go out in their dream post-surgery outfit and have dinner,” she says. 

Two people posing for a photo in a bar
Photograph: Courtesy of Riané HumanWhitney LaMora and Zoe Schor.

Additionally, due to Dorothy’s liquor license, the downstairs venue is only available to those age 21 or older, so LaMora hopes an additional event space would allow them to host community celebrations for queer and trans youth who cannot enter a bar, such as transition celebrations or graduation parties. On the Instagram page for Villanelle, one supporter expressed that the venue would be an ideal space to celebrate their trans daughter’s high school graduation.

The Villanelle team has also received excited responses from professionals in the wedding industry such as photographers and videographers looking to work with a space like theirs. 

“We know the need is there,” LaMora says

Kickstarter uses an all-or-nothing fundraising model, meaning backers are not charged for their pledges unless the project reaches its entire fundraising goal. And LaMora and Schor are offering supporters a host of rewards, including a curated night out, a party for up to 30 guests at Villanelle or a drink named after a supporter added to the menu at Dorothy. LaMora says one of the best ways Chicagoans can support this effort, other than donating, is “purposeful sharing of the Kickstarter.”

LaMora says if the Kickstarter is successful, the team hopes to begin booking contractors and kick off construction as soon as possible, with the ideal goal of launching events in the space in May of 2024. 

When LaMora and Schor reopened Dorothy in the summer of 2022, they were inspired by the Lesbian Bar Project, a campaign to celebrate and preserve the few remaining nightlife spaces for lesbians in the U.S., to do so as a lesbian bar. Similarly, LaMora hopes that the launch of Villanelle would inspire other LGBTQ+ business owners to launch their spaces and ventures as queer businesses.

“Representation matters,” she says. “We hope that we inspire more future queer business owners to label themselves as such and say, ‘Hey, I want to open this and do it as a queer business. Villanelle is doing it—why can't we do it here, because there are queer people everywhere.’”

Villanelle is accepting backers via Kickstarter until February 29.

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