This is a condensed version of a history published in two parts in the Evanston Roundtable in April of 2023. It was written by Dr. Jenny Thompson, Director of Education for the Evanston History Center. The first part can be found here.
In the fall of 1915, Rev David O’Leary, a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Evanston, and his sister, Ellen O’Leary Lynch, purchased a “handsome private residence” at 1456 Oak Avenue, kitty-corner to St. Mary’s. The house (no longer extant) stood on a large plot of land at the corner of Oak and Lake. The O’Learys donated the house and land to St. Mary’s parish for the purpose of establishing the “Margarita Club,” named in honor of their mother and sister.
The Margarita Club was a “benevolent enterprise,” the O’Learys stated, for “girls employed in the commercial world.” “The idea,” the leaders of St. Mary’s explained, was “to furnish girls not in a position to pay a great deal a home with all the comforts and care that they would find with their own people.” The club was partly funded by donations (some of which were raised by the newly founded Catholic Women’s Club) and operated under the supervision of the Rev. Hugh P. Smyth, pastor at St. Mary’s. It was one of several such “clubs” for young working girls in Evanston formed around the same time, including the Girl’s League and the Iroquois League.
Although the Margarita Club was owned and operated by St. Mary’s, residents did not have to be Catholic to live there. The club was not, however, open to everyone: According to U.S. census records, all residents of the Margarita Club were white.
By 1925, the little Margarita Club was bursting at the seams. It was “always filled, usually with 20 or 22 [residents] even though it was judged to only accommodate 16 at the most.” Plans began to form around constructing a new building for the club that could house more girls and offer more services and programs. Even before the Margarita Clubhouse for Girls officially opened the doors of its new five-story building at 1566 Oak Avenue in October 1927, it was almost at capacity. A total of 96 women applied to live in the new club. It was promised that they would be “accommodated with every facility for comfortable living while engaged in self-support.”
The women who settled at the Margarita Club were active contributors to the life and livelihood of the city; whether they were librarians, nurses, teachers or clerks, they were part of Evanston’s development. Many took part in professional organizations and clubs, civic programs and volunteer work.
By the early 1970s, facing the challenges of an economic recession, the club struggled. Citing “declining revenue and dwindling use,” the leaders of St. Mary Catholic Church put the building on the market in 1973. The building reopened in 1974 as a residence hotel called the Margarita Inn.