By Jennifer Sandy, Senior Field Officer
Walking down the leafy streets of the Pullman Historic District in Chicago today, it’s easy to imagine that this community must have seemed like a dream to the many factory workers for whom it was built. Tidy brick row houses line the sidewalks, ranging from modest worker cottages to more ornate mansions, while grand buildings like the Hotel Florence and the Greenstone Church provide a sense of community. Pullman was even voted as “The World’s Most Perfect Town” in its late-nineteenth-century heyday.
But the true story of Pullman is much more complicated -- and much more interesting -- than just its creation as America’s first model industrial town. The community has seen its share of challenges, but Pullman’s residents and supporters have always remained dedicated to protecting and promoting this special place. Now the community is united behind the goal of national recognition for Pullman’s contributions to our country’s history. Today, the National Trust joins the coalition advocating for Pullman to become a National Historical Park by including the community on our list of National Treasures -- an honor it truly deserves.
The town of Pullman was created from scratch out of 400 acres of Illinois prairie south of Chicago in 1880, when industrialist George Pullman decided to build a new manufacturing center for his Pullman Palace rail cars. He hoped to attract a happy, reliable workforce by offering a clean, safe living environment far from the overcrowded and vice-filled city.
His best idea was to provide good design to his tenants. He hired architect Solon S. Beman and landscape architect Nathan Barrett to design the town. The result is a cohesive community of red-brick buildings with Victorian flourishes, situated immediately adjacent to the north and south of the sprawling factory complex. (The town’s geography is reflected in its contemporary neighborhood names of North Pullman and South Pullman.)
Unfortunately, not all of Pullman’s notions were as successful. His brand of “corporate paternalism” began chafing the town’s residents almost from the beginning, as most aspects of residents’ lives were closely controlled by the company. According to Pullman State Historical Site archives, Pullman employees declared, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”
The situation came to a head in 1894 when, in response to an economic downturn, the company laid off workers and reduced wages without reducing the rent, leading to one of the most divisive labor strikes in American history. Rail workers across the country refused to service any train with a Pullman car, bringing most rail traffic west of Detroit to a standstill. When strikers refused to obey a federal order not to obstruct trains that carried mail cars, President Cleveland called in federal troops to help end the strike.
The workers’ strike was not successful, but we can thank the strikers for the creation of the Labor Day holiday, which was signed into law six days after the strike ended. In the aftermath, the Pullman company was ordered by the Illinois Supreme Court to sell the town’s residential buildings, and the town was eventually annexed by the City of Chicago.
Despite selling off the town, the Pullman Company continued to thrive into the 20th century, thanks in no small part to the legions of Pullman Porters across the country who worked the rails. At one point, the Pullman Company was the nation’s single largest employer of African-Americans. The Pullman Porters are credited with helping to develop a black middle class and contributing to the Great Migration by sharing northern newspapers in southern communities along the train lines.
History was made in 1937 when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American union in the country, signed a major labor agreement with the Pullman Company, leading to better wages and hours for workers. Still, the town of Pullman remained largely segregated until after the passing of several key Civil Rights acts in the late 1960s, including the Fair Housing Act.
The decline of passenger rail travel in America led to many changes in Pullman, but the neighborhood has remained strong over the years. It banded together to fight off a proposal to demolish a number of buildings for an industrial park in 1960, achieved National Historic Landmark status in 1970, and got City of Chicago landmark status for South Pullman in 1972. The largely African-American community of North Pullman was added to the City of Chicago landmark district in 1993.
Despite losing several major factory and commercial buildings to fire, the Pullman community remains dedicated to preserving their history and telling their story. Efforts continue to document Beman’s unique and diverse architectural detailing, reclaim and affordably rehab vacant properties, and celebrate and share the community’s African-American history.
Indeed, the tight-knit and dynamic neighborhood is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets, and now there’s a buzz of excitement around Pullman as new economic development opportunities arise and long-time preservation efforts pay off. For example:
- The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has invested over $26 million in the Pullman State Historic Site, restoring the exterior of the Administration Building and the historic Hotel Florence. Pullman is also part of the Governor’s Millennium Reserve, a collaborative and community-centered initiative to transform a 220-square-mile region in transition by focusing on natural and cultural assets.
- The National Parks Conservation Association, working closely with neighborhood groups, has been building support for a National Park at Pullman. Community members understand the recognition and economic development opportunities this could mean for their neighborhood, and the idea has been endorsed by political leaders at the City and State level as well as by all major Chicago newspapers.
- The City of Chicago has made Pullman one of its seven “Opportunity Planning Areas.” New investment in the greater Pullman area includes a new Method soap production plant and a rehabilitation of the former Pullman Wheelworks building into affordable housing. (The latter is a historic tax credit project by Mercy Housing Lakefront and National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Corp.)
- And today the legislation to make the park a reality has been introduced by Illinois Senators Durbin and Kirk, and Representative Kelly.
The momentum is building, and the National Trust is proud to be part of this important work! Join us as we shine a spotlight on Pullman and its many stories in the year ahead.
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