Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Eleanor Residence for Working Women and Students

Parkway Eleanor Club, 1550 North Dearborn Parkway Chicago Illinois
Former Eleanor Residence for Working Women
and Students
Eleanor Residence for Working Women and Students

Location: 1550 N. Dearborn Parkway, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened: 1898

Closed: 2001

We're often told that the loss of womyn's space is some inevitable result of "progress." The Cool Girls, we are told, don't even want these things anymore!
But by reading carefully between the lines, we see that the real story is typically one of betrayal and selling out to more powerful interests (usually money, especially moneyed males). And notice that once again, the opinions of the women most affected by these decisions are decisively ignored. That these spaces are meaningful to womyn is just not even deemed worthy of notice. And notice all the mysterious "research" showing women didn't want this residence, but they couldn't find even one woman to interview who agreed!
This particular womyn's space, the Eleanor Residence, was lost over 15 years ago, but all those themes are here.
Funny how the loss of all these "old-fashioned" women's residences over the last decades of the 20th century has paved the way for women losing spaces that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago--bathrooms, locker rooms, sports teams. And we are still being told we're out of step with the times, fuddy-duddy, hysterical, or right-wing if we object.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Door closes on an era
For 103 years, Eleanor residences provided group homes and built-in friendship for single women.
With the sale of the last one--on prime Gold Coast land--the board hopes to help even more women and girls.

October 03, 2001|By Barbara Brotman, Tribune staff writer.

Kathleen Darley walked through the lobby of the Eleanor Residence with the elegant posture of the ballet dancer she is. Spotting Susan Rodriguez, she gave her two thumbs up.
"You got it?" Rodriguez asked eagerly.
"I think so," Darley said.
Rodriguez grinned. "Oh, we've got to celebrate tonight."

Darley had just had a promising audition for her dream job, a role in the Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker," which she later learned that she had indeed won. And inside this dormitory-like building on the Gold Coast, she had just received one of the benefits of the Eleanor Residence: the support of other women.
For 103 years, Eleanor residences have provided inexpensive, dormitory-style housing for single women in Chicago. In its heyday in the early 1900s, Eleanor was a vast social organization. There were Eleanor banking facilities; an Eleanor League for girls; an Eleanor monthly magazine; and an Eleanor Camp in Lake Geneva.
Though originally intended for young women starting careers, the residence came to serve newly divorced and widowed women, visiting students and women re-entering the work force.
But the residences' era came to an end Sunday, with the closing of the only remaining facility, the Eleanor Residence for Working Women and Students at 1550 N. Dearborn Pkwy. Darley and
Rodriguez were among the last residents.
In June, the board of the Eleanor Women's Foundation voted to end its role as a provider of housing, and become a grant-making philanthropy. It decided to close the last residence, sell the prime Gold Coast real estate [emphasis added], and use the proceeds to support programs for women and girls.
The sale is being conducted through the real estate firm of Newcastle Limited, which is evaluating the sealed bids that have come in.
Where single women once could not sign their own names on leases, now they routinely get their own apartments, said Susan Leinwohl, the foundation's executive director and an Eleanor resident in the 1960s.
"We've maintained a fairly decent occupancy, but demand has generally been decreasing," she said. "We feel that we can provide much more service to women and girls with the money that we will receive from the sale of the building. This is such a wonderful thing; I am really excited about this."
Closing brings sadness, anger
The women who lived at the Eleanor, on the other hand, were saddened.
"You have a built-in support system here. I have friends I'll know forever," said Darley, 21, a Texan who decided to begin her dance career in Chicago rather than New York partly because of the Eleanor.
And because the Eleanor provided two meals a day--room and board was $21 a day--it freed her to devote herself to dancing. "You move into a new city, and you just don't have a lot of time and energy for cleaning house and making an apartment," she said.

"I was devastated" to hear of the closing, said Linda Keller, 37, a courtroom Spanish interpreter who lives downtown. She stayed at the Eleanor from 1997 to 1999 when she moved back to Chicago from Spain, and while there established the "Happy Table," where residents dined by candlelight and spoke only of upbeat matters.
"It was such an opportunity for women," she said. "It was unique. It was a microcosm. You gathered women of all races, walks of life, social strata and educational status, and we learned from each other."
Some of the residents were furious about the closing.
"This place is really needed," said Rodriguez, 48, a nail technician known professionally as Fergie, who moved to the Eleanor when her 26-year marriage abruptly ended.
She thinks the board members don't understand how many women make low incomes and find themselves in desperate need of a temporary place to live.
"These women all drive BMWs and Audis," she said. "I don't think they realize what it's like to be out there."
Stephanie Ponn, 28, who works in sales and fundraising for the Chicago Sinfonietta, said she felt betrayed by the Eleanor board.
"They want to give the impression that these are all professional women here," she said. "But there are vulnerable women here--a woman who came here after a divorce and was starting life over again, women who were abused, women who are getting over mental problems. They knowingly took these women in and said, `You can stay here for two years,'" and then closed the residence.
"Maybe they want to help women, but I think they've been very hypocritical with the women here."
She found an apartment, as did Rodriguez and Darley, but worries that she may have to take on an additional or different job to afford it.
The board's point of view
Leinwohl said the board made every effort to help residents find other housing. The Eleanor Residence gave them free room and board for the month of September, and allowed them to take the room's furniture if they wanted. The board gave residents and employees three months' notice, she said, and brought in an apartment rental agency to help the women find new living quarters. Women who preferred communal living were referred to the Three Arts Club, a similar facility a few blocks away. (The Three Arts Club is specifically for women artists; at present, it has no openings until January.)

The Eleanor Women's Foundation deliberately tried to screen out women who were unable to live independently, she said.
"We are not set up to handle social service type of problems," she said. "Our advertising has always been clear: We are a residence for working women and students." It was also clear, she said, that this was not a permanent housing option; after two years, women had to move out.
"People are somewhat disgruntled; change is difficult," she said. "But the Eleanor really and truly has an obligation to serve as many women in Chicago as they can. I understand those feelings, but I'm pleased we can move forward."
The Eleanor board is not abandoning women, but changing in order to serve more of them, she said.
Only 1.4 percent of philanthropic funds in Chicago go to programs specifically for women and girls, according to a 1992 survey by Chicago Women in Philanthropy; the Eleanor Women's Foundation hopes that the proceeds from the property's sale can add significantly to those funds.
"We have to be the best possible stewards of our money," Leinwohl said. "If there were a real need for this [type of housing], the YWCAs would still be in this business." The YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago closed its last residence in 1972.
Before making the decision, the foundation spent a year and a half examining the needs of the women it was serving.
"Our research tended to show that women wanted other kinds of options for housing," Leinwohl said. "They wanted their own kitchens; their own bathroom facilities; and this is a little touchy, but they wanted [to be allowed to have] men in their room."
The rule prohibiting men above the first floor was a holdover from the Eleanor Clubs' early days.
Darley, who had actually heard the Eleanor was a convent, liked it because it allowed her to wander around in her pajamas freely; her parents loved it.
The tearoom days
The Eleanor Clubs were founded in 1898 by Ina Law Robertson, a Washington state school principal who moved to Chicago to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. She thought young working women new to the city needed help making the transition from rural to urban life. She named her organization Eleanor after Eleanor Law, a friend whose wealthy brother had willed his estate to Law and Robertson for philanthropic purposes--Robertson took "Law" as her middle name out of respect for James Law. She also liked the name Eleanor because it means "light" in Greek.
Eleanor was a way of life. In 1916, according to the book "Women Building Chicago 1790-1990, A Biographical Dictionary," the Central Eleanor Club's tearoom downtown served 58,000 people; more than 2,000 young women took classes there in gymnastics, folk dancing, millinery and English. By 1920, the club occupied nearly an entire floor in the Stevens Building in the Loop.
At one point, there were six residential Eleanor Clubs in the city. The Gold Coast building, built specifically as an Eleanor residence, opened in 1956 as the Parkway Eleanor Club.
Leinwohl lived there from 1963 to 1965, when the young women there wore gloves and pillbox hats to interviews, and began reading Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique."
"I absolutely loved it," she said. "I loved it better than my college experience. I met a wider range of interesting people. . . . Oh, it was so much fun."
But she believes that by becoming a philanthropic organization, the Eleanor Women's Foundation is honoring the spirit of its founder.
"She saw a need in her time. Well, we see needs that are not being met today," she said. "We're coming full circle, but in a different direction.

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