By Joy Bergmann
Susan Leinwohl leapt at the chance to run away from her dour Denver women’s college with a dashing graduate student from Northwestern she’d met on the Colorado ski slopes. Whisked away to Chicago at 19, she looked forward to happy adventures in the big city.
But three months into the courtship, her beau started making time with a nurse and Leinwohl got dumped.
She knew she didn’t want to go home; Chicago had enchanted her. But where could she go? She knew no one. And, back in the early 1960s, a single woman without a job couldn’t get a credit card, much less a lease.
Her panicked parents called around and presented a palatable solution: the Eleanor Residence at 1550 N. Dearborn Parkway. She moved into the all-female dormitory and stayed for the maximum tenancy of two years.
“I loved it,” says Leinwohl, who’s been the executive director of the Eleanor for the past three years. “I was truly a woman in transition and found the experience interesting and broadening in so many ways.”
Sheltering such “women adrift” from the dangers of urban life spurred the creation of the Eleanor Women’s Foundation in 1898.
Back then, Ina Law Robertson, a determined 31-year-old student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, had been meeting young women who worked as salesgirls in the Loop. Often from small towns and without connections in the city, these clerks had to manage on wages of only $3 to $7 a week.
At about that same time, Robertson came into a sizable fortune and decided to address the housing needs of Chicago’s workingwomen by opening the Hotel Eleanor in Hyde Park. Named for her friend and benefactor, Eleanor Law, and the Greek term for “light,” the Christian-oriented boardinghouse was founded on the premise that “the business girl desires living conditions on just as self-respecting a basis as any business man would wish.”
The 28-room hotel filled up immediately. Robertson soon moved the enterprise to a building large enough to house 81 women and changed the name to the Eleanor Club. A second Eleanor Club was started in 1905, and four more opened over the next nine years. By 1916, 600 women lived in Eleanor-affiliated accommodations.
Satisfied that more workingwomen had a safe place to stay, Robertson went hunting for places where they could play. In 1908, the Central Eleanor Club opened downtown, promising a convenient location where a woman might read, socialize, or enjoy, according to the club’s newspaper, the Eleanor Record, “the privilege of making herself a cup of tea…after the rush and fret of the day.” Thousands of members dined in the club’s tea room and took classes in gymnastics, folk dancing, dramatics, millinery, and English.
Knowing that the budget of a self-supporting girl rarely stretched to allow for a vacation, Robertson launched the first Eleanor Camp in 1909 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Campers kicked up their heels and made bonfires for roasting corn and marshmallows. They sang the “Eleanor Song,” recited the “Eleanor Pledge,” picked the “Eleanor Flower” (the daisy), and delighted in hayrides when not napping in cabins with names like Flicker, Sandpiper, and Bobolink.
The Eleanor engine continued to purr for decades, unabated by Robertson’s death in 1916. Demand, however, began to dwindle in the late 1960s, as skirts got shorter and opportunities wider. Many of the original clubs found themselves in deteriorating neighborhoods, and one by one they closed.
The sole survivor is the Eleanor Residence on Dearborn, constructed by the Eleanor Foundation in 1956. The Central Eleanor Club now meets there sporadically.
“We’re still filling a need, even today,” says Leinwohl. “Unfortunately, we’re the best-kept secret in Chicago.” She’d like more women to be aware of the Eleanor option and aims to increase the current 80 percent occupancy of its 122 rooms.
The place is quite a bargain. Located in the Gold Coast, across from Lincoln Park, the Eleanor costs just $21 a day for residents staying more than 28 days. For that price they get a clean, basic furnished room with shared bath, breakfast and dinner six days a week, bimonthly cleaning service, 24-hour front-desk security, and plenty of conversation.
It actually costs $35 a day per room to run the nonprofit residence, Leinwohl says. The extra is underwritten by private donations to the Eleanor Foundation’s endowment. “We need to keep it affordable,” she says. “We cater to workingwomen and students with incomes ranging from $18,000 to $35,000 a year.”
Leinwohl proudly points out the comfy television lounges, the parlor with a grand piano, the computer lab, and the lending library. “We’ve tried to make it as homey as we can,” she says. Indeed, the decor–with its floral touches, antiques, and plaid wing chairs–might have been produced by a suburban mom.
The Eleanor still holds to its requirement that residents be of sound moral character. Applicants must submit letters of recommendation along with the usual credit checks and key deposits. New tenants receive a hefty “Values and Guidelines” manual covering everything from smoking to where residents must re-pot houseplants, making expectations clear and preventing problems, says Leinwohl.
At 5:30 on a recent Thursday, residents shuffle about the lobby awaiting the cafeteria-style dinner service. The rotating menu promises chicken stir-fry with sugar cookies for dessert. Residents chat about visiting relatives. Several ooh and ahh over an heirloom ring one woman recently acquired.
Audra, a 21-year-old aspiring recording engineer, received a three-month internship with Chicago’s Southern Records while studying at Michigan State. She started looking on-line for short-term housing and found an ad for the Eleanor. “I felt uneasy about living alone in a big city,” she says. “I wanted to feel safe. Plus, when I read about the way the women started this, it appealed to me.”
Now in the second week of her stay, Audra feels pleased with her choice. “It’s completely like dorm living, but more friendly and laid-back.” She says she’s met women from all over the world and felt welcomed immediately. “On my first night I met some women in the computer lab downstairs and they asked me to go to a movie with them that night.
“Having meals prepared helps out a lot,” she adds.
For her, the only downside is the “no men upstairs” rule. But, she says, “How safe I feel here, as a trade-off, makes it completely worth it.”
The enforcement of gender boundaries is carried to the point of absurdity, according to other residents. Virginia, a 56-year-old special education teacher, moved in after selling her house in October. She’d just had leg surgery, and she needed her twin sons to assist with the move. But getting permission to have them upstairs took some finagling. “It was goofy,” she says. “Having us be so isolated by gender makes us seem peculiar to other people. My sons thought it had to be a gay thing or something.” More accurately, Virginia says, the Eleanor is a good “chill-out place” for women making a life change or going to school.
“It’s a great location in a nice neighborhood,” agrees Christina, a 20-year-old student at the Harrington Institute of Interior Design. “I didn’t want to sign a lease because I go home to Florida in the summers.”
Companionship is the main draw for Jenny, a legal secretary in her 30s. “There’s lots of people to meet and I’ve met friends here that I keep in touch with, even since they’ve left,” she says. “It’s a community.” While she waits for an economical unit to open up in a nearby building, Jenny’s happy to stay. “It helps in tight situations. Since it’s a biweekly deal, you can come for as little or as much as you need.”
The Eleanor fit with Anna’s needs. A 27-year-old obstetrics resident doing a two-month visiting rotation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Anna lives in a similar residence back home in Stockholm. She called the Chicago offices of the Swedish Board of Trade for a housing recommendation and they sent her to the Eleanor. “It’s a piece of history that used to fill an important need for women who chose careers over family life,” she says. Though Anna thinks the Eleanor is a bit of a relic, she recognizes the need for some women to have a “second family” through such residences.
“I believe it was a godsend for me,” says 32-year-old Nadine, a freelance events coordinator from Trinidad. Nadine feels the Eleanor is perfect for someone who wants to try out Chicago without putting down roots too soon. “I like that it’s a no-strings-attached kind of place; it’s self-contained, everything is right here.”
Lucy, an artist in her 50s, finds the residence a reflective resting point following an arduous two-year divorce. “It was a real shocker. And I didn’t want to stay in my house and melt away,” she says, comparing her small room to a cocoon. “The Eleanor’s a good place to be to think about what I want to do next with my life.”
Not that she’s been isolating herself. Lucy befriended a group of teachers from Spain who are working with the Chicago Public Schools. They encouraged her to use her Spanish skills as a translator, which she’s now pursuing part-time. And thanks to information gleaned from the Eleanor’s frequent guest speakers, she’s joined a walking club as well as several social organizations.
But Lucy is gearing up to move on, spurred by her newfound confidence and the realization that group living under fluorescent lights eventually gets old. “It does seem like an institution after a while,” she says, “but that’s a good incentive to make plans.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.