With a desire to have a place for locals to share meals and make connections, the owners purchased an historic property in our small downtown with a vision of creating a restaurant to share hospitality and spark revitalization right in the heart of our historic district. It was a highly personal and collaborative project that has invigorated a small downtown and brought an upscale dining experience to an unexpected location.
The creation of a first-class dining experience in rural Arkansas proved to be a fulfilling design challenge for a Delta-grown multi-discipline team combining architecture, interior design, branding consultancy, and landscape design.
Owners Gina and Jim Wiertelak desired to extend their signature hospitality to the entire community of Lonoke, Arkansas and guests from abroad with the creation of The Grumpy Rabbit American Eatery, a one-of-a-kind space for gathering, celebrating, and enjoying neighborly conversation over a meal crafted by an acclaimed chef. As believers in the ongoing revitalization of Downtown Lonoke, the Wiertelaks invested in the built fabric of the community with the purchase and adaptive re-use of the historic J.P. Eagle Building at 105 Front Street Southwest to house this new experience. The handsome brick structure was originally constructed in 1905 and designed by the renowned Arkansas Architect Charles L. Thompson, whose work is found throughout the town of Lonoke in a relatively high concentration of homes and commercial structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Owners utilized State of Arkansas and Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits in this project, choosing to strategically invest in a project that would be a catalyst for their hometown.
The historic Eagle Building is a twin to the neighboring D.R. Boone Building, remaining structurally connected, but separate properties. Both properties have been utilized variously for commercial purposes throughout the preceding 115 years. Originally constructed as a mercantile and storage facility with a completely open 25’-0” x 100’-0” footprint, the last several decades have seen layers of low-impact interior renovations within the walls of the Eagle Building that had become worn and deteriorated. The Grumpy Rabbit American Eatery project was envisioned from the beginning as an adaptive re-use that would preserve the historic integrity of the building’s primary facade, while maximizing the space of the original footprint for the accommodation of a clean, modern dining experience. Demolition of the non-historic interior elements yielded a blank canvas for Architect Ryan Biles and collaborators Natalie Biles and Stacey Breezeel of Shine Interior Design Studio, who are based around the corner in Downtown Lonoke. The resulting interior design perfectly reflects the owner’s vision of a light, clean environment juxtaposed with the remaining original materials of the building envelope, including plaster walls, original wood floors, and bead board ceilings. The historic and the new exist alongside one another in a thoughtful, unique composition of textures and finishes. Utilizing space, pattern, and furnishings, the design team created ten different seating areas within the project, bringing to life the Owner’s desire to offer a different dining experience each time a guest visited the eatery. Dining rooms and wet bars are located on both floors, with kitchen and service spaces arranged along the side and back of the building, accommodating deliveries and emergency egress onto a new patio space behind the structure.
The primary facade along Front Street Southwest received new paint for existing wood trim, restored wood windows, replicated wood base, and the signature metal frieze. Existing terra cotta pilaster details were preserved, as the historic masonry was found to be in excellent condition. With the original historic storefront entry intact, the restoration work opened up previously covered transom windows, exposing an original light shelf that was incorporated into the design of the dining space. Entering the front door, patrons enter the main dining room, accommodating 36 guests defined by a feature wall housing an aquarium that is surrounded by custom millwork faced with stained tongue-and-groove flooring salvaged from a 1930’s-era mezzanine found in the building. The town of Lonoke is a world leader in aquaculture, a fact which is highlighted and celebrated in the selection of fish housed in the aquarium. The main dining area also features local artwork and antique decorative lighting from a prominent local home, with banquette seating arranged along the side wall. The downstairs bar is separated from the main dining area by the same feature wall and aquarium backdrop. Ledge tables and intimate seating are arranged along an adjacent path to the back patio, highlighted with a signature lattice-patterned wallcovering that would form the basis for the eatery’s branding design, integrated thoughtfully by Will Staley and Sarah Melby of Helena,Arkansas-based branding firm Thrive.
Other required life safety improvements became design opportunities, as two separate egress stairs were created in the historic structure. An interior open stair leading to second floor dining areas is tucked away near the bar and celebrated with colorful risers and LED handrail lighting, while an historic window location on the back wall of the restaurant has been converted to a door opening with a custom wood door patterned after Charles Thompson’s original design, now leading onto a porch-covered balcony and egress stair. Rather than simply accommodate functional requirements, the balcony provides outdoor seating under a classic wood porch overlooking a bright and vibrant patio. An unusual property line created an opportunity for the alley to become more than a service space. It is now activated as an outdoor dining area with bluestone pavers and custom corten planters designed by Greenwood, Mississippi Landscape Architect Brantley Snipes. Mint, lettuce, and other homegrown items used by the chef are grown in the planters, which are modular and can be rearranged to define space flexibly for various outdoor events. The patio and modern steel stair are situated against a backdrop of original brick exterior walls, historic windows, and infilled arches. A back entrance to the restaurant is created in another custom door in a former window opening, patterned after an original door and transom design.
Second floor dining areas are bright and open, overlooking historic Lonke Depot and the oak trees that line the picturesque setting along Front Street. A second bar is adjacent to this space, dotted with a variety of seating types and augmented by a private dining and meeting room available for smaller intimate functions. Again using a statement wallcovering, the interior design team created a corridor that serves as a backdrop for displaying historic mementos and other articles highlighting Thompson’s design and J.P. Eagle’s 1905 construction of the building. A well-appointed Owner’s office looks out onto the back porch through one of the original historic windows that remained in place.
Early in the design process, the Owner selected Thrive to create a branding package that would be integrated into the building’s design, environmental graphics, interior signage, and murals. Consequently, the brand’s elements of color, typeface, and primary and secondary visual icons are seamlessly woven into the interior and exterior elements of the design, highlighting the impact of the collaborative approach championed by the Architect. The signature branding element integrated into the architecture is found in the custom-designed blade signage that adorns the east pilaster of the primary facade, bringing the block to life as it glows each evening.
The Grumpy Rabbit American Eatery project represents the passion of an Owner who trusted and empowered the design team to imagine a space that would delight and surprise. The thoughtful use of color, clean lines, and pattern and the integration of the eatery’s branding into the facility’s design achieves this objective while honoring the original built fabric and redeeming it for a new and essential purpose in a town that calls itself “The Front Porch of the Delta.”