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How I went from pig roast at abandoned convent to my wedding

February 7, 2013

You may notice a HUGE difference in this post than in all previous posts since I started this blog three years ago. I’ve been doing something wrong for basically my whole life, ever since taking typing classes on those slick Commodore 64s in Chairavalle Montessori’s “lab” [it was more of a broom closet at that point]. Who knew?! Sorry future leaders of America, I steered you wrong. Luckily, I’ve only taught hundreds of kids over the years.

Anyhoo, onto more important things than education. My wedding.

Back in July, I posted “Our Ridiculous Wedding Wish.” The summary?

Fiancé and I ARE –

Fiancé and I ARE NOT –

  • hotel ballroom
  • swanky restaurant
  • church/synagogue/any house of worship
  • dry chicken breasts and limp green beans
  • anyone dictating we must use this caterer, this florist, this photographer…
  • this day has to be huge!, perfect!, a real spectacle!

We wanted a wedding that reflected our AREs and our ARE NOTs and that came nowhere near the average Chicago wedding price of $53,000. To be honest, a wedding that costs $10,000 is hard to swallow for us; the website design, the travel, the updated Quickbooks we could buy with that money!

So, we thought, a pretty house! A backyard wedding! Economical, little stress, comfy, us. We know a lot of folks, for sure we can find a pretty house backyard for free or a barter!

After the wedding wish post, amazingly generous offers of “I don’t have a house but I do have ______ which I’d love to offer you!” flowed in. And so did the pretty house. Two in fact. No strings. Just here, we like you, here’s our house.



But the more we discussed details and talked to people, the more it became apparent what we thought would be simple and frugal could actually turn into a ton of work and money. When you piecemeal, the time and money add up. Fast. Rent chairs from this place and plates from that place. Where do we put the caterers? Do we want people traipsing through someone’s home to use the bathroom? Do we need to rent a tent? An AV system? Get a special permit to serve alcohol? How do folks get to the house way out here in the ‘burbs? And on and on.

I curate events for a living. I did not want to clipboard, headset-mic, and armpit-sweat my wedding.

So we began to rethink our vision and investigate other venues. Too pricey. Too overdone. Too formal. Too inclusive. Too un-inclusive. The “Let’s just be done with it…” vibe began to reverberate.

And then, lo and behold, we got our Fairy Godmother wish. Just like that. It’s nothing like what we wanted and it’s exactly what we wanted.

Funny story.

An acquaintance of Fiancé told him months ago about a restaurant in Pilsen that had this cool outdoor space that wasn’t your typical ridiculously-priced wedding venue. When Fiancé described it to me, I didn’t go ga-ga. I had been to the restaurant – Honky Tonk BBQ – and while I had enjoyed the pork, coleslaw, and indoor ambiance, I couldn’t picture an affiliated outdoor space that fit our vision. So I told him to spreadsheet it and promptly forgot about it.

Sometime down the road, I recalled an event that I went to as part of my Solo Life, where I’d go to one thing a week by myself. The title of the event was what caught my eye – “Pig Roast at an Abandoned Convent.” Ohhh. That sounded intriguing. So I went. And blogged about it, in September 2009. Remembering the uniqueness, intimate yet large size, comfortable yet urban hipness, adventure-going obscurity, and fairytale white lights, I thought, hmmm, maybe. As a Plan G. And spreadsheeted it.

Fast forward four months. We were so ready to have an answer to “Where are you getting married?” “Have a venue yet?” “What’s the date?” I re-examined the now ridiculously long spreadsheet. “Uh Fiancé… I think that place your friend told you about and my pig roast place are the same. That’s small-world’y!” A few minutes later, on a Tuesday December night, we were driving down the highway to Pilsen. Dinner. View it through wedding-glasses. See what happens.

The waitress brought our check. Fiancé asked about the space, thinking she would just chat it up with us. A few minutes later, the event coordinator was sitting at our table. She was jeans, gym shoes, long brown pony-tail, ankle crossed over her knee as she leaned back in her chair. She oozed laid-back. As we started chatting details, she oozed laid-back professional. Fiancé and I started to fall a little bit in love.

Everything she mentioned was exactly what we wanted to hear —

  • brisket, mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes
  • easy parking
  • come in to decorate whenever you want
  • we’ve got vases, tubs, platters, lights, tables, chairs, AV you can use
  • capacity 200
  • we’ll handle all the food and service
  • sweet-tea and lemonade
  • feel free to bring in your own alcohol; we can serve it
  • only thing you might want to rent are linens
  • it’s never rained on any of our weddings
  • whatever you guys want, let’s do it

A few minutes later, we were walking to the Abandoned Convent a block away from the restaurant. It was as I remembered it. Fiancé loved it immediately. I loved the idea of not having to rent stuff or worry about set up and tear down immediately.

We were surprised to learn there were only three weekends left in the whole year. Labor Day weekend, our weekend, someone had already booked. Sad face. But she just booked the catering not the space, and multiple catering can happen! Happy face. We thanked Event Coordinator and said we’d be in touch. As we drove home, we went over the pros and cons, likes and dislikes. Pros and likes went on for awhile. Cons and dislikes, we had none.

A few minutes later, after running in the house to grab the checkbook, we were driving back to Pilsen. Thirty-ish minutes after we told her goodbye, we presented our deposit check to Event Coordinator in the overflowing basement of a neighborhood BBQ joint filled with mismatched vintage dinnerware and vases. She added us to the bulletin board of couples and we said goodbye. Again.

We finally have an answer! September 1st. The Secret Garden.



For environmental reasons [and perhaps one or two other reasons], I hope that’s the only check we end up writing. The way things are going, it very well may be. In exchange for what Fiancé and I do well, from social media marketing to teaching improv to non-improvisers to referral-giving to curating events, we’ve got some of the best talent in Chicago a part of our wedding day for a whopping price tag of $0.



Wedding is shaping up to be a powerhouse of local, independent, creative, socially-conscious, passionate, mostly-female Chicagoans.

Can’t wait to continue adding to the arsenal [Beer Brewer? Baker? Florist? Wine or Liquor Purveyor? Rehearsal Dinner Caterer? Day of Coordinator? We’d LOVE to chat!].

A fairytale wedding CAN be begotten without credit card debt, arguments, check one: chicken or steak, and constrictive under-garments.

A fairytale wedding CAN be low-key, non-wasteful, affordable, and fun.

A fairytale wedding CAN be nothing like what you envisioned and yet everything you envisioned.

46 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristy permalink
    January 25, 2016 4:42 PM

    Hey!! We just booked our wedding at Honky Tonk for July 2016! =) I know this post is super old, but wondering if you have any advice or things you wish you would have known or considered about the space. Thanks in advance!

    • January 26, 2016 1:34 PM

      Hm, not really.

      They wouldn’t let me change there which I didn’t know till the week before so had to scramble to find somewhere else to get dressed. There were loud neighbors blasting music during our vows, but not sure what you can do about that. Thought it sprinkled at the beginning, we’re glad we didn’t rent a tent in case of rain, too pricey.

      Other than that, everything else went perfectly. Helps when you have a ‘shrug, what can you do about it?’ attitude.

  2. Stacy Sealky permalink
    January 2, 2016 9:22 PM

    I know that this is an old post, but if you do read my comment, would you be able to share the address of this garden? If you don’t remember the exact address, anything –streets, nearby buildings, would help me a lot too. I really love this venue. Please let me know. Thank you!!

  3. Ashley Novoa permalink
    July 5, 2013 8:49 PM

    I’m so excited I came across your post! My fiancé and I are getting married at the honky tonk garden this July 27th. I’ve been looking online day in and day out for different blog posts about the spot because I feel like it’s the perfect hidden gem for an intimate wedding. We fell in love with the venue for all the same reasons you did. Can’t wait to see all your pictures best wishes on your wedding night.

    • July 6, 2013 12:11 AM

      Thanks Ashley! We feel the same way about the space. And I’d love to see you pics, memories of the day, if you’re posting them anywhere publicly.

      Can’t tell you how many people have said, “Oh I wish I had known about this place when I got married!” Definitely a gem.

  4. June 19, 2013 11:39 AM

    So nice to have come across this great article on the Secret Garden! In March, my fiance and I were in a very similar situation as you; wanting minor fuss, but good fun, near the 10K mark. We spotted the Garden via google search, and the rest is history—we’re August 3rd of this year! Best wishes, and happy planning!

    • June 19, 2013 11:48 AM

      Ohh yay! Congrats!

      I’m really interested in all the couples who chose this non-traditional venue, would be interesting to do a follow-up post with folks post-wedding. Maybe I’ll add it to the To Do list…

      Good luck to you as well! If you blog about the big day/share pics publicly, do let me know!

  5. May 21, 2013 2:21 PM

    I admire your success in cobbling things together organically and getting the best of each element, rather than be suckered into the “convenance” of a package. No doubt it will be a delightful affair!

    Readers and writer alike, please do not overlook the fact that none of this is, as implied, actually “free.” While procured by barter, these treats are the result of thousands of hours of your professional labor and the products created therein. So for the rest of us, while our careers of, say, teaching physics, might not afford us a clamoring cadre of fierce, party-minded colleagues armed with craft beer and childcare, it does provide us a tiny bit of money with which to procure the same.

  6. Missy permalink
    May 9, 2013 2:35 PM

    Thank you for posting this, I love the space and your story. I just came across this venue as I am beginning to search for a wedding space that is not “wedding-y” Hope your wedding is everything you want it to be!

    • May 9, 2013 6:04 PM


      When are you getting married? And what do you think your guest numbers will be?

      Might have some suggestions.

      • Missy permalink
        May 9, 2013 8:25 PM

        We haven’t made any decisions yet as to when, where, etc. We are 60-40 at any given time if we even want a wedding. Lately I have been thinking that we should spend our money on an Icelandic honeymoon, which sounds much more appealing! Our guest list would be between 75-100 people. I love the idea of a simple celebration, because a wedding is something to be celebrated. I dislike all of the hooplah that goes along with the wedding industry though. I would welcome any suggestions!

        Also – I was checking out your site and I am thoroughly intrigued by the class you are having next Thursday. Currently at a point where I don’t know what to do with my career and am feeling kind of lost on the matter.

        • May 10, 2013 9:52 AM

          Here are some non-traditional options —

          Bang Bang Pie Shop is very similar to Honky Tonk. If you check it out, feel free to drop my name — Dave the owner is FAB! He’s always on twitter, @bangbangpie. I’m @sayahillman.

          Bridgeport Arts Center

          Lacuna Artist Loft

          And a friend I know married at City Hall, took a trip to Paris and then had a huge party at Chief O’Neills in their gorgeous outdoor space. She said is was the best idea ever.

          You should come to Dabble next week, always a good two-hours! (Biased of course 🙂 ) The reason you give is the reason most give for coming.

          • Missy permalink
            June 19, 2013 11:42 AM

            Thank you so much for the awesome suggestions! I am still trying to figure it out. What is your plan in case it rains?

            • June 19, 2013 11:50 AM

              It won’t rain. Life of Yes! way of thinking. 🙂

              If it does, those allergic to water can go inside the building. Those go with the flow folks will enjoy a summer raindance.

              • Missy permalink
                June 19, 2013 12:06 PM

                I love it! I made the same case to my protesting partner, but he is a little leery of our unpredictable weather….

                • June 19, 2013 12:35 PM

                  Yeah, when we heard the cost of a tent ($3000!!), we decided a little water never hurt anyone. Karie said it rained on a wedding a couple of weeks ago and though of course, it would’ve been better dry, she said everything was still wonderful and that the couple didn’t die or anything. That’s another thing I like about this venue — it attracts people who realize that things like rain happen, it doesn’t do anyone any good to get upset, and it’s best for everyone if you just say to hell with it and embrace whatever’s thrown at you. Perspective.

  7. April 22, 2013 8:32 PM

    You are so lucky to get the hook-up from so many awesome vendors! Hope it’s a wonderful (and sunny, non-humid!) day!

  8. April 17, 2013 1:16 PM

    I love love love this story. Yep dreams do come true. Thanks Saya for sharing. This is SOOOO you and Pete (can you see/feel me smiling?) And because I’ve experienced many of these talents, I’d agree you have got some of the best talent in Chicago as part of your wedding day.

  9. April 17, 2013 10:10 AM

    Wonderful! Honky Tonk is my favorite restaurant in the city and I love their outdoor space. Willie and his team will take very very good care of you for your wedding!

  10. Rina permalink
    February 27, 2013 9:09 PM

    Saya, you should have a Mingler where we come over and help you make favors! It could even be wedding themed — your most scandalous wedding story (bride/groom point of view, guest POV), etc. I’d go….I’m sure people have good stories!

  11. leslie permalink
    February 24, 2013 12:36 AM

    What a great story!! looks like the perfect venue for you two totally original people! : ))

    • February 26, 2013 4:43 PM

      Thanks LM! 🙂 Just got blessed with another awesome female-entrepreneur offering up her services — wedding brunch catered by Ambiente Chicago, woot!

  12. February 13, 2013 11:17 AM

    Yay! I feel the same way as a Community Manager. Why would I want to plan an event for free when I get paid to plan them because they are stressful?

    Our plan is to have a “destination” wedding, which is a cop-out for not having any wedding at all, and just going on vacation.

  13. February 9, 2013 8:53 AM

    Love this! It’s so important not to get wrapped up in what everyone else is doing. My husband and I got married in Galena Illinois for half the price of Chicago – on a farm with BBQ picnics and lawn games. No white dress, no cake, no first dance. My friend made the dress, a friend was the DJ, a friend was the photographer, a friend’s friend is the jeweler of our rings. It was perfectly us and so much more special because of it. Some people want the big white wedding, which is great, and some people choose a more alternative route – the most important thing is that you stay true to yourselves as a couple. 🙂

    • February 9, 2013 9:49 AM

      Great story Shayna, thanks for sharing! Solidifies my feeling that we’re heading down the right path.

      Where in Galena did you get hitched? Had a family reunion at Eagle Ridge and went to a wedding at an adorable schoolhouse/tiny church place that I can’t remember the name of.

      I’ll be dress shopping at the Old Navy clearance rack. Hello $8 sundress.

      No first dance or cake for us either!

      • February 9, 2013 9:58 AM

        Yes, we got married at the same place with the school house and the chapel! (although our ceremony was outside) It’s called Oak Hill. All our families stayed at Eagle Ridge.

  14. February 9, 2013 8:27 AM

    I love, love this! You two are adorable and I love how you approached your wedding planning. It’s REAL. Real is often forgotten by couples as they get swept in the whirlwind of flowers, color schemes, how to make it fabulous…for everyone else. I can’t wait to hear more, your day is going to be super special for both of you and everyone there.<3

    • February 9, 2013 8:37 AM

      Thanks Lisa P!

      Every time someone asks me about my “color scheme,” I stare back blankly. Same for dress, flowers, hair and makeup. Could care less!! We just want people to have fun, us to have fun, Fiancé People to smoosh with Saya People, and to not spend a ridiculous amount of money. And it not to rain.

      PS – I met the gal from 10th and Blake (that’s what it’s called, right?) at Ignite, she’s awesome. I don’t like beer but she had me craving a pint.

  15. February 9, 2013 8:08 AM

    Love hearing how everything is coming together! The location looks amazing! Textual storytelling…I like! Congratulations again, Saya!

  16. February 7, 2013 4:47 PM

    So fabulous. I’m planning a wedding out of state, but two of my favorite vendors/folks have been Chicago-based: Crafty Broads, who altered my dress (and who I believe also do day-of coordination etc), and Rebecca Zemans, who’s making our (very reasonably priced) wedding bands and who incidentally works in an awesome gem-of-a-space-with-a-pie-shop-beneath, Lillstreet Art Center. Not sure if you’ll need any of that, but just a heads up on a few more fab local ladies who actually take a genuine interest in realizing whatever vision you have, and fairly.

    • February 7, 2013 7:12 PM

      Thanks JS!!!

      Rebecca has been recommended by a few folks. If we don’t exchange fruit loops, maybe we’ll contact her. Haven’t heard of Crafty Broads, good tip!

      And I know where to come if I decide I need wedding dancers, am I right?

  17. Katrina Ladendorf permalink
    February 7, 2013 2:13 PM

    This is amazing! If we wouldn’t already have gotten married last year I would definitely be looking into this place! Hope your day is AMAZING!

    • February 7, 2013 7:10 PM

      Thanks Katrina!

      Where did you get married?!?! I LOVE hearing everyone’s stories… any chance you blogged about it? Would love to read it.

      And if you have any vendors who were rockstars, do tell! While I may already have lots of mine, I get asked about 15 times a minute for referrals.

      • Katrina Ladendorf permalink
        March 20, 2013 10:11 AM

        We got married at River Forrest Country Club in Elmhurst, IL. Private club that hosts weddings, etc for anyone (don’t have to be or know a member) Outside ceremony and nice big ballroom inside and no worries about multiple parties a day. Hayes (their event manager/coordinator) is the most wonderful person to work with and I can’t say enough about ALL of the food!
        We loved our DJ, Paul from Admit One out of Naperville. Admit One lets you choose your DJ from their vast staff at Meet the DJ night and we loved him! The dance floor was rocking from our group first dance until the music stopped along with the wonderful music he played during the ceremony.

        We brought in cupcakes for our dessert, made by the fine people at Cupcakes 4 Courage (now Courageous Bakery) in Elmhurst, IL and Alliance Bakery (Wicker Park neighborhood, Chicago). So delicious people were stealing the left overs at the end of the evening as they walked out the door.

        The rest of the stuff I did on my own, with the help of a wonderful fiance, some very good friends and family!

  18. February 7, 2013 12:02 PM

    Congratulations! Awesome story!


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