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After our last column, a RoundTable reader submitted the following question for historians at the Evanston History Center:
We moved to Evanston in 1970. There was a hotel/rooming house on the south side of Main Street, on the southwest corner of Forest, across from Lincoln School. It had a front porch and a beauty salon and a restaurant and reception desk in the lobby. And I recall an old creaky elevator. We stayed there for several weeks in 1972 between apartments. Mostly older people lived there. When was it built and I do not recall when it was torn down? I think it was called Evanston Inn.
Answer: The Evanston Inn, previously known as The Evanston Hotel (1915 – c. 1976)
The hotel you stayed at in 1972 had a long and storied history, and at the time you stayed there, it was more than half a century old. During your stay, the hotel was called the Evanston Inn. But at the time that name had only been in use for several years. Since the hotel first opened its doors in 1915 and well into the 1960s, it was called the Evanston Hotel. It stood on the lot on the south side of Main Street and Forest Avenue, just as you describe.
To track down the history of the hotel, we consulted our archives, Evanston directories, newspapers, and biographical data on Ancestry.com. As we did, the larger story of Evanston’s hotel history started to emerge – an interesting story we hope to tell in further detail at some point. The Evanston Hotel played a prominent role in that history and marked the ushering in of a new modern age of hotels and hotel living in the city.
The Evanston Hotel
The Evanston Hotel was built by two Chicago-area hoteliers and real estate investors, Frank C. Lewin and Louis M. Nelson. In 1914, Mr. Lewin purchased the lot on Main Street for $40,000 after his plan for constructing a “family apartment hotel” on Dempster Street fell through. Soon, Mr. Nelson joined forces with him and the two men worked on plans and financing for constructing a five-story hotel on the site.
In November 1915, the 200-room hotel opened its doors. It was championed as Evanston’s first “modern” hotel. It was widely advertised as a sophisticated and swanky spot for guests of all kinds, from diners to travelers to long-term occupants.
Emphasizing the hotel’s classy but “homelike” atmosphere, the hotel owners made a special appeal to Chicago residents and travelers to come to Evanston – “Chicago’s most fashionable suburb.” They advertised the hotel’s attractiveness to “men and women who prefer the clean, clear air of the suburbs to the dust and grime of the congested districts. It appeals to those who prefer quiet elegance to artificial glitter and show.”
“There’s a wonderful difference between refined splendor and vulgar display,” read a 1916 ad for the hotel.
“The men who own and operate the new Evanston Hotel . . . have seen to it that nothing garish, nothing savoring of tawdriness, has been allowed to creep in.”[i]
Promoting its close proximity to the elevated train, the C&NW railway, and Lake Michigan, the hotel was also hailed for its many amenities, including a ballroom, restaurant, private dining rooms, a ladies’ lounge, and “sun parlors.” The restaurant offered table d’hote and a la carte meals, and the hotel hosted regular dinner dances. It operated on what was known as the “European Plan,” with prices quoted for lodging only and not including meals. (An “American Plan” at a hotel included fees for both lodging and board.) Guests could stay for one night or for weeks at a time. Hotel rooms could be reserved with private baths and the popular (at the time) sleeping porches.
The Evanston Hotel was the first of several large, modern hotels that would open in the city in the late teens and 1920s. Indeed, the post-World War I era was a time of a major building boom in Evanston. In a brief period, Evanston saw several new hotels go up, including the North Shore Hotel on Chicago Avenue and Davis Street (opened in 1919); the Orrington Hotel at Orrington Avenue and Church Street (in 1923); the Evanshire Hotel on Hinman Avenue and Main Street (in 1923); and the Ridgeview Hotel on Maple and Main Street (in 1924). These large hotels were also known as “apartment hotels,” since they offered long-term rentals and all the amenities and services of a hotel.
As these grand-style hotels flourished in the 1920s, each new structure sought to outshine its predecessors, offering guests everything from roof gardens to solariums. But the Evanston Hotel may have topped them all – not only was it the first “modern” hotel in Evanston, but it also boasted its own nine-hole indoor golf course!
Evanston’s Segregated Hotels
The history of these hotels also reflects the history of a segregated Evanston.
“The new up-to-date hotel recently erected at the corner of Main and Forest street is nearly completed,” reported the Chicago Defender in November 1915. “We hope that race men will be employed.”[ii] Not all positions at all the City’s hotels were open to Black employees. But the Evanston Hotel would indeed hire “race men,” as the reporter hoped.[iii] The North Shore Hotel did as well; and by 1920, a third of all employees at that hotel were Black.[iv]
But Black guests being welcome at these hotels was another matter. At many Evanston hotels, for many years, only white guests were welcome. During a 1958 visit to Evanston to give an address at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reportedly had to sleep at the synagogue because he was unable to secure a room at the City’s segregated hotels.[v]
Numerous stories of Black guests being turned away from Evanston hotels are part of the historical record. In 1944, when Purdue University student A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. traveled to Evanston with his debating team to take part in a debate at Northwestern University, he recalled his encounter at a local hotel when he tried to check in with his white colleagues: “The room clerk looked at me, fidgeted slightly, and murmured ‘Sorry, we don’t accept negroes here.’ ” Mr. Higginbotham found lodging that night at the YMCA on Emerson Street. And, as he recalled, he awoke the next morning resolved to become an attorney and fight against segregation and discrimination. He later became a ground-breaking civil rights advocate, U.S. Federal Court Judge, and recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.[vi]
It was not until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that discriminatory practices in hotels would become illegal.
The Evanston Hotel’s Later Years
Over the years, the Evanston Hotel changed hands several times. By 1948, the hotel was still advertising both “transient” and “permanent” rooms, but by the 1950s, the hotel shifted into emphasizing longer-term rentals, with “kitchenette apartments” rented on a monthly basis.
In 1965, C. Wylie Allen purchased the Evanston Hotel for $500,000. Mr. Allen, who also owned the Homestead Hotel at 1615 Hinman (now the Graduate Hotel), invested $200,000 in renovating the hotel. He also changed the hotel’s name to The Evanston Inn.
Mr. Allen died in 1972. Soon after, the Evanston Inn was sold and demolished. On the former site of Evanston’s first modern hotel (the 800 block of Forest) was erected the “Commons of Evanston,” a complex of condominiums, completed in 1977, just a few years after our reader’s memorable stay!
The Evanston History Center is happy to partner with the Evanston RoundTable to share the insights that our expansive collection of Evanston history provides. Public records, newspapers, letters, maps, photographs, and artifacts all carry messages from the past to inform our lives today. The differences and changes can be compelling, disconcerting, educational, but always fascinating and often downright funny.
Since history looks at the past but also influences the future, and today will be history tomorrow, we have titled this column “Dimensions.” We are living in a historic time, and you can help us tell future generations what it was like. We are located in the National Historic Landmark Charles Gates Dawes House at 225 Greenwood St.. Please visit our website, evanstonhistorycenter.org, to learn more about how you can participate and contribute to the collection.
What are you curious about in Evanston history? Let us know what you’ve wondered about! Send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eden Juron Pearlman, Executive Director
[i] Advertisement, Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1916.
[ii] I.R. Moore, “Evanston, Ill,” Chicago Defender, November 6, 1915.
[iii] Dino Robinson, “A Family Legacy: Esther Pringle Weldon Reflects on Her Family History,” https://shorefrontjournal.wordpress.com/tag/african-american/ (Shorefront Journal, Vol. 6, Summer 2005.)
[iv] “Evanston, Ill,” Chicago Defender, January 10, 1920.
[v] Lisa Black, “Audiotape Ties King, Synagogue,” Chicago Tribune, January 21, 2002; Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 63.
[vi] Hans Knight, “A. Leon Higginbotham: Youngest Federal Judge,” Negro Digest, October 1964, 25; Brian Gene Hoffman, “A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. (1928-1998),” Black Past, November 25, 2017.