Features | Politics | Pullman

Company Town

As support for a National Park builds, how will Pullman present its past?

LUKE WHITE

ALL PHOTOS BY LUKE WHITE

In 1893, one Mrs. Duane Doty, a Pullman resident, penned a slim volume titled “The Story of Pullman.”

“The history of civilization exhibits a steady growth and progress in the masses of the human race to higher levels,” she wrote. “In showing to the world that the interests of capital can be amply provided for while operatives…are made sharers in the results of good work, an example has been set here.”

“Pullman,” she went on to say, “is emphatically a new departure in city building and, as the writer firmly believes, marks an era in human advancement.”

Roughly ten years earlier, George Mortimer Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company, had bought up a parcel of land a dozen miles south of the Loop for a new passenger-car factory.

Had George Pullman been an ordinary businessman, and had the late nineteenth century in America been an ordinary time, the story of the Pullman Palace Car Company and all it wrought might have ended there. But this was the Gilded Age, a time that saw then-unimaginable wealth put to use by men of still-unimaginable ambition. So, George Pullman built his factory. And then he built a town.

Pullman wasn’t the first company town in America. But Duane Doty can be forgiven for thinking something unprecedented was going on. Indoor plumbing. Daily trash collection. Open space. Roman archways. A marketplace. A theater. Athletic grounds. All were unthinkable for the majority of industrial workers in the late nineteenth century. All were in Pullman.

The town was made most distinctive, though, by the material used to build it. Clay was dredged from nearby Lake Calumet to make bricks. Millions upon millions of bricks. Just a few decades earlier, the Great Fire had razed much of the city to the ground. Bricks were nonflammable. They were architecturally compelling. And they provided a sense of permanence. As far as residents like Doty were concerned, it seemed like Pullman and the homes in it really could be around forever.

In a sense, they weren’t wrong. It’s remarkable that time has not been more unkind to Pullman. The factory closed in the fifties, and the thousand or so homes that remain have weathered the forces of economic change and punctured hubris.

Though little of the original utopian spirit and the institutions it generated have endured, it’s not hard to find residents of the historic district—about 3,600 strong—proud of what was, what could have been, and, if all goes to a certain set of plans, what could still be.

Pullman will never again be considered the marker of a new “era in human advancement.” But it could, very soon, be a National Park—a realization of the potential that community leaders have seen from the beginning of the town’s new life, a second chapter that was almost never written.

Duane Doty’s former home is now the site of a corner grocery store.

Duane Doty’s former home is now the site of a corner grocery store.

Well—back in the sixties, I believe—someone had the bright idea to try and bulldoze Pullman.”

Earl Johnson says this peering over his glasses and out of his driver’s side window, looking through the rain at traffic on 111th Street, near the midsection of the Pullman Historic District.

The old factory site sits behind us, a large empty expanse filled in by tall grass, the remains of the factory’s rear erecting shops, and the tall, sublime structure of its well-preserved administration building and clock tower. The building’s tower may be the old town’s most striking remnant, about as grand a marker of the District’s western boundary as anyone could hope for.

When developers drew up plans to turn the district into an industrial park in 1960, the Pullman Civic Organization (PCO)—which started as a civil defense organization during World War II—successfully fought back and initiated the restoration that would be taken up by a myriad of offshoot and similar groups over the next half-century.

In 1998, arson destroyed much of what was left of the factory and severely damaged the tower.

Big fire. Huge, huge fire,” Johnson says with a rueful chuckle. “There was a building that filled this whole area over here and tied into those buildings over there. That’s gone. I mean it was toast. And everything that isn’t brick you see here, was gone.”

Afterward, the town’s preservation groups put together funds to do what they’d already been doing for decades—detailed, diligent rehabilitation.

Johnson is one of the community volunteers who helps maintain the factory site, which has been controlled by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), a government agency, since 1991.

“I don’t work for anybody,” he laughs. “But they’ll say, ‘Mow the grass.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, okay.’ Or ‘Haul the garbage.’ ‘Well, okay.’ ”

Johnson has lived in the Historic District for twenty years, long enough to see the expansion of preservation work on the part of individuals, and of groups like the IHPA, firsthand. As we drive up Cottage Grove into the northern half of the District, he cheerily points to homes recently repaired and touched-up to look as freshly built as they would have in the 1880s and 1890s.

“This is getting into North Pullman. You see some of the brick work that’s been redone here? See that archway? That thing was really in bad shape. And then this—they’ve fixed this up here pretty nice.”

Down certain streets on the neighborhood’s north side, homes hewing closely to the conventions of the old Pullman’s style are few and far between. The exteriors of many old Pullman houses have been transformed by generations of ad-libbed variations from the architectural script laid out by the town’s planners. Rustic stone façades, space-age colors, outsized porches—all features left behind by Pullman homeowners less interested in the design strictures of a bygone past than in the architectural trends defining their respective periods of the twentieth century.

“Now, some places like this one here that’s got yellowish brick on it—” Johnson says, pointing to one such house. “That’s a veneer. That’s not original. Back in the fifties or maybe sixties, somebody must’ve thought it was cute or the fad thing to do.”

Other houses on the north side are simply vacant, boarded up, and crumbling—as much an indicator of recent economic hardships, namely foreclosures, as the limited geographic and financial reach of the District’s preservationists. In 2011, the group Preservation Chicago listed North Pullman as one of the city’s most threatened neighborhoods. Much of the recent preservation work here has been done by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, a nonprofit that works in similarly distressed areas throughout the South Side. Despite the oversight provided by the Pullman State Historic Site, an IHPA-run organization, North Pullman’s homes saw decades of neglect before preservationists successfully lobbied to include the area in the city’s landmark district in the 1990s. The tardiness of that inclusion shows. As Preservation Chicago wrote in its 2011 report, “the area north of 111th Street gained landmark protection so much later than the south, the preservation challenges for this area are immense.”

“South Pullman is less rough around the edges, as you’ll soon see,” Johnson says.

He’s right. When the town was originally built, the lowest classes of workers would live the furthest away from the factory, while the bosses would live up close. As we move away from the factory toward the southern end of the District, this is reflected in the higher density of the homes—they’re smaller, more tightly packed together.

And yet—ironically—most seem to be visibly well-preserved, and thus, more expensive in the present. South Pullman is more bucolic, more obviously middle-class than North Pullman. Halloween decorations abound. Dogs are being walked. Couples are strolling. It all happens against the backdrop of home exteriors brought near their original state.

In contrast to much of North Pullman, individuals in South Pullman, well within Chicago’s landmark district, are required make their homes hew to a series of regulations written to preserve the community’s architectural continuity. Grants for this are made available by the PCO.

Formal efforts to secure landmark status for Pullman began in 1968 with the creation of the Beman Committee—named after Pullman architect Solon Spencer Beman—by members of the PCO. The committee’s main task was to conduct research and archival work in order to make a compelling case for Pullman’s preservation to local, state, and national authorities.

This effort led to Pullman’s designation as a National Historic Landmark District in 1970 and South Pullman’s designation as a Chicago Landmark District in 1972, two milestones in the expansion of the wider world’s understanding of Pullman’s significance—an understanding that, for a while, surpassed that of many of Pullman’s own residents.

“It was just, you know, a place where they lived,” says Michael Shymanski, one of the original members of the Beman Committee and the current president of the Historic Pullman Foundation. “You have to be informed about how important things are and how important the architecture is—the importance of preserving it in contrast to modernizing it.”

The attention garnered by the designations and the continued campaigning of the Beman Committee eventually encouraged Pullman residents to start restoring their homes on an individual basis. But some committee members recognized that the preservation and restoration of larger, non-residential buildings would be problematic.

“When it came to major buildings, we needed more resources,” says Shymanski. “The Civic Organization was just an association. It didn’t have the capacity or the structure needed to raise funds, be a 501(c)(3), et cetera. We needed to get people involved beyond the limited resources of the neighborhood.”

Thus, the Historic Pullman Foundation was incorporated in 1973. The foundation spent much of the 1970s purchasing and preserving structures like the remains of the thrice-burned market hall, which served as a shopping and community center for the old town, and the Hotel Florence, a luxe fifty-room hotel formerly used to house material suppliers and railroad executives visiting Pullman on business. Since then, the Foundation has steadily expanded its role, and has become a leading voice in the push for National Park status.

“National Park status will put us on the map—literally,” Shymanski says. “It’ll facilitate people taking greater interest and pride in the Far South Side of Chicago. It will stimulate economic development.”

His experiences doing preservation work at the Hotel Florence, which operated as a museum and restaurant for decades, help him further illustrate the benefits.

“When we had the restaurant in the hotel, we employed people,” he says. “We had cooks, waiters, managers, busboys, dishwashers. Revenue coming in and going to pay people. And that was just a small-scale thing.

“If this became a National Park all that would significantly increase,” he continues. “People will come, and, like going to any attraction, they’ll spend three hours or so looking at stuff, being entertained, going on a tour, or whatever. But what do they want to do after that? First thing they want to do is eat. Second thing they want to do is some shopping. And the next big step is, if you have enough activities, for them to stay overnight.”

In many parts of the neighborhood, the extent of preservation varies starkly from house to house.

In many parts of the neighborhood, the extent of preservation varies starkly from house to house.

It’s a simple enough recipe for growth, and it’s all within the realm of possibility, according to the National Park Service. At the request of Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, along with then-Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., the Park Service released a “reconnaissance survey”—a general overview of a possible Park site’s potential—for Pullman last summer. The survey reports that Pullman, already declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1970, definitively meets two of the NPS’s criteria: significance, meaning the sight is of clear historical importance, and suitability, meaning educational and recreational offerings at the site are unique and not offered at other Parks.

The third criterion, feasibility, is trickier. Detailed analysis of the financials, staffing requirements, and other specifics was outside the purview of the study. Outside funding will have to be found, and the roles community organizations and the NPS will take on or share will have to be determined.

If a Park is found to be feasible, there are two routes for approval. The first begins with the introduction and passage of a bill in Congress asking the NPS to do a more comprehensive study, which could last years. If the site is assessed positively, another bill would have to be introduced and passed to make the space a Park, a process that could also take a number of years.

The second route, recently advocated by the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, is much shorter.

“The President has the executive power to designate things as National Monuments,” says Shymanski. “And National Monuments are administered by the National Park Service. To do that, the federal government has to own something, so there are discussions about various governmental units transferring a piece of their property to the National Park Service. And then the President could designate it a National Monument under the Antiquities Act. And he could do that in his last year, which happens to be the centennial of the National Park Service.”

Monument status isn’t quite National Park status, but it would still make Pullman a nationally significant destination, and would allow the District to gain Park status by a future act of Congress.

When I meet Shymanski, he’s busy thinking about the present and is in the midst of preparations for Open House Chicago, a free event run by the Chicago Architectural Foundation that brings visitors to 150 architecturally significant locations across the city.

The Historic Pullman Visitor Center, a former Masonic lodge purchased by the Foundation in 1973, is set to be the staging ground for Open House exploration of the neighborhood. Shymanski, along with another Foundation volunteer, Patty, have spent the better part of the day shuffling around the Center’s immense second floor, unearthing and dusting off acquired artifacts from the Hotel Florence and George Pullman’s colossal Prairie Avenue mansion to showcase for sightseers.

Although brick was the defining architectural characteristic of everything Pullman touched, vast amounts of wood still lined the walls and comprised the furniture of his buildings—the Hotel Florence and his own home included. The timber in the Center’s collected artifacts might have come from at least a National Park’s worth of trees. Chairs. Tables. A dozen or so large armoires. Doorframes one could almost drive cars through. The size and number of these objects reflect the grandeur of George Pullman’s life and ambitions almost as well as the buildings he had constructed. On our way back downstairs we stop in front of what appears to be a mahogany headboard for a four-poster bed custom built to Goliath’s specifications.

“We found a 1950s article about the hotel, and the article went on to say that this was George Pullman’s bed,” Shymanski says proudly. “We still have to verify that. But period-wise, it’s correct.”

The collection of artifacts at the Visitor’s Center underscores the kind of focus preservationists have placed on the material aspects of life in Pullman. The historical value and preciousness of the things visitors to Pullman can see and, potentially, live in, are obvious. One would expect the same to be even truer about the lives of the people who used to own them. And yet, for unclear reasons—perhaps gaps in the historical record, or an awareness of what visitors are most interested in—the town’s preservationists seem to have little to say about them.

This is brought into relief by the annual Historic Pullman House Tour, the event perhaps most indicative of the kinds of things visitors to a Pullman National Park could participate in. During the tour, visitors take a self-guided stroll through the neighborhood and visit private residences not typically open to the public. One of this year’s most visited stops is the home of William Tyre, executive director and curator of the Glessner House Museum. The museum is the former Prairie Avenue residence of the late-nineteenth-century farm-technology magnate John J. Glessner. Incidentally, Tyre first came across the 112th Street Property in 2010, on another Historic Pullman House Tour.

Midway through the day, the line outside Tyre’s home is consistently about thirty people long as groups of thirteen are cycled in and out of the house by docents. One of the docents, Donna Primus, stands on the front steps of the house and charismatically preps newcomers to the line for what they’re about to see.

“Bill’s full-time job is to be in a historic home museum. That’s the mentality that he brought to this home when he purchased it a few years ago,” she enthuses. “He is very interested in Chicago history, and so when you go inside, you’re going to see over one hundred framed pieces of art on the wall that are things like color plates from the 1893 World’s Fair and photos of homes that no longer exist on Prairie Avenue. He has some family pictures, he has Pullman train-car china, he has incredible tiles and architectural pediments on display throughout the home as well as in the garden.”

Everyone in the crowd has dressed appropriately for the appreciation of china and tiles. Neat scarves and trim coats abound. There’s a newsboy cap here, a Francis Ford Coppola winery cap there, and houndstooth all around. After fifteen minutes or so, the group exits the house and the next thirteen are let in.

“You’ll find this to be a top-notch, professional visit to a fabulous home,” says Primus.

Inside, Tyre’s house resembles less a home spruced up to be a museum for a weekend than a museum someone happens to live in. There is an object on every surface, be it a figurine, bust, photo, print, or otherwise. In his parlor, Tyre carefully and, as promised, professionally, gives his guests an overview of the first floor’s features.

“Above the picture railing is the original plaster cornice, which is all intact and original. And then in the middle of the ceiling, the only surviving original plaster ceiling medallion,” he says. “You’ll notice that there’s panels underneath that extend out to the floor. When I moved into the house, those panels had been covered over with drywall—I did not know they were there. When I visited my neighbor’s house, I saw his panels, came back, knocked a hole in my wall, and found them. They had been painted, so I had them stripped and refinished, and they were as good as the day they were put in.”

Throughout the home are many examples and displays with this same kind of meticulous attention to original detail. But Tyre and the docents are light on specifics about who might have lived in the house. All guests are told is that the original resident was the principal of the town school—no name provided—and that the upper-story rooms were often rented to boarders.

The same is true for the other houses on the tour and, it seems, educational efforts in Pullman in general. All told, the average visitor to Pullman is likely to learn less about Pullman’s artisans and executives than about the variances in the shades of “Pullman green” paint on their windowsills.

The extent of George Pullman’s control over life in the old town was seen as overbearing, or even tyrannical, by many of his workers, a mood captured by a quote cited in a town history provided by the Pullman State Historic Site:

“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.”

It’s likely workers of the mindset exemplified by the quote would be none too thrilled about the buildings they lived in overshadowing years of toil. In fact, it was precisely that kind of discontent that led to the event in Pullman history probably most underrepresented by the District’s offerings: the 1894 Pullman Strike, sparked by Pullman’s refusal to reduce rents in the town to correspond with cuts to wages made necessary by falling demand.

Pullman passenger cars were so ubiquitous on American railroads by that point that when leftist activist Eugene Debs successfully called for a boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars, half the country’s rail system was brought to a screeching halt. The strike eventually drew to a violent close with the intervention of the United States military on the behalf of Pullman, an action that took the lives of thirty strikers. Just days after the strike, Congress and President Grover Cleveland attempted to make amends with the labor community by declaring a national day for the commemoration of organized labor’s place in American society—Labor Day.

To be sure, Pullman’s place in the history of the American labor movement is a draw for many visitors, and community leaders like Shymanski know it.

“Just recently, we had a group from Europe that organized a labor history tour—a tour about the strike,” he says. “Europe! Just because they knew we had that story to tell.”

At present, though, there isn’t an official place a National Park could use to tell that story. But another story in the same vein fares better. A repurposed rowhouse on South Maryland Avenue is home to the A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, an independent institution dedicated to the history of the black porters that served passengers in Pullman cars for a century.

Though the Pullman porter jobs reinforced notions of black servility, they were highly sought after and relatively stable. In 1925, civil rights activist and labor organizer Asa Philip Randolph led the formation of a union of black porters—the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—the first black labor union in American history.

For Shymanski, the museum and the legacy of the porters significantly strengthen the old town’s claim for National Park status.

“The cool thing about this National Park [would be] that it tells great, multi-racial stories. It brings together the great diversity of this country to be shared and celebrated,” he says. “The stories about Philip Randolph, the Great Migration, and all the things that were happening with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—those are great stories.”

The presence of those stories accentuates Historic Pullman’s remarkable overall diversity in multiple demographic categories, race being just one of them.

“Over time, this neighborhood became as diverse racially, socially, and economically as the city of Chicago—which I think is very cool,” Shymanski says. “I mean, I think it’s cool to live in a neighborhood where you have retired people, poor people, old people getting by on Social Security, some people on Section Eight—other people, like my wife and I and other couples here—they have the capacity to exercise choice. You have two professionals in a family.”

But the relationship between Historic Pullman and the more homogenous, predominantly black communities that surround it has been affected by the kind of racial exclusion and alienation manifested in many other Chicago neighborhoods over the past several decades. It would be hard to understand the benefits a National Park could bring to the area just outside the District’s boundary lines, and the rest of the South Side, without an accompanying understanding of how the District and surrounding neighborhoods like Roseland have evolved.

Shymanski, an urban planner by trade, has a lot to say on the subject.

“The federal government made funds available to open neighborhoods up because of the overcrowding that had occurred in the African-American ghettos,” he says. “And when that opened up, Roseland changed very rapidly to become more African-American. Like, in a very short period of time.”

“When change occurs that rapidly, there’s sort of an institutional breakdown,” he continues. “And by that, I mean—the retail owners. They don’t assimilate the African-Americans, who are the minority, into the operation of the business. The old-timers don’t assimilate into social groups and service groups. And those kinds of groups and institutions provide the network to maintain stability.”

And Pullman, on the other hand?

“We were able to…keep the old people from running away. Just being frank and truthful about it. We were able to bring in my generation of people, younger people, who saw the future of this nation being one of integration.”

Given the divergent paths taken by historic Pullman and surrounding communities like Roseland, it’s worth wondering if those living outside the boundaries of the District are as optimistic about prospects for a National Park as those within.

Joe, a local businessman from Roseland, isn’t.

“I mean, they’re bringing tourists down here every weekend, anyways,” he says, scratching his head. “But what do you see down there?” He points to the empty expanse of land near the old factory site. “Nothing.”

Joe, who declined to have his real name printed, owns a shop near the District where he’s worked for nearly twenty years. Our interview is the first he’s heard of National Park talk.

“I mean, I’ve been here for twenty years. No one’s asked me what I think about what’s been going on around here.” He chuckles. “I mean—I’m just a person, you know.”

“Black people out here are just…out here. They don’t get involved. I don’t worry about what’s going on around here because they’re going to do things the way they want to.”

The remains of the rear erecting shops at the preserved factory site.

The remains of the rear erecting shops at the preserved factory site.

It’d be hard to argue that National Park designation wouldn’t have the effects matching Shymanski’s broad predictions. More visitors would likely yield more revenue. More revenue would likely yield more businesses. More businesses could well yield jobs and investment for the wider Far South Side community, benefitting both Park promoters as well as detractors like Joe.

But missing, perhaps crucially, from the picture of what a National Park would look like and mean are deeper explorations of the lives of the people who lived inside the District and, if Joe’s comments serve as any indication, the insights of the people who live just outside of it today. It’s clear that the town’s preservationists have a love for Pullman’s history that runs as richly and deeply as the red in the bricks of the buildings they’ve spent decades protecting and inhabiting. Their passions will be given space and attention in a Pullman National Park. Whether they’ll be joined by the passions of those made outsiders by the passage of time or by socioeconomic circumstance remains to be seen.

To newcomers at a potential Pullman National Park, Duane Doty’s two-story townhouse on St. Lawrence Avenue, just down the street from the Visitor Center, might be well worth a stop. It still stands—proudly, of course, and in fairly good condition. But sometime during the past century, a modest corner grocery store sprouted from her home’s façade. On this particular day, the storeowner is passing sodas through a metal gate to children who’ve just been released from the school across the street. The scene might not be worth including in the annals of Western civilization. But it’s not a bad end to an average autumn afternoon.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 24, 2014

An earlier version of this story misstated North Pullman’s relationship to the landmark district. The neighborhood has been included in the district since its borders were expanded in the nineties.

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Thoughts on “Company Town”

  1. I actually think this statement in this story is encouraging: “…Pullman will never again be considered the marker of a new “era in human advancement.” Not in it’s final judgment, but in the acknowledgement necessary to judge whether it will or will not.

  2. Your writer got most things right, just screwed up on North Pullman; its been part of the Landmark district since Lynn Hughes and I petitioned the city to expand the districts boundaries in 1990. Not sure how you missed that, it was on the cover of the Sun Times at the time. North Pullman lacks the unifying presence of a Civic Organization like the PCO, which incidentally is the oldest ion Illinois, meeting every month since 1960…THAT’S what hold a neighborhood together. All in all a good piece. Thanks!

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