On February 19, President Obama—with Mayor Emanuel at his side—announced the designation of Pullman as a National Monument to a crowd of cheering supporters at Gwendolyn Brooks Preparatory Academy. For the Emanuel campaign, the announcement was a valuable pre-election coup: “Rahm hasn’t just fought for a national park in Pullman. He’s fought for new opportunity and new jobs in Pullman and for every Chicagoan in every neighborhood,” said Obama. For residents of Pullman, who have been working to have the area recognized by the National Parks Service, the moment was the culmination of a five-decade grassroots movement to preserve the neighborhood’s rich historical and architectural value.
Under the American Antiquities Act, the President has the power to declare historic landmarks as national monuments by public proclamation and “may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” For Pullman, this means that the historic district will become a part of the National Parks Service, albeit a smaller one than a full-fledged national park.
The National Parks Service will maintain portions of Pullman similar to the way it looks after the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty. The combined area will be bounded by 103rd and 115th Streets to the north and south, and Cottage Grove Avenue and the Norfolk and Western Railway line to the west and east. The National Park Service will control the already federally owned Clock Tower and Administration Building, while the State of Illinois will maintain ownership of the Hotel Florence and residents will continue to own the row houses and small businesses in the community.
“Essentially the national monument designation means the Clock Tower Building will be improved into a visitors’ center, and the National Park (Service) rangers will provide security and interpretive services for tourists,” Kayce Ataiyero, a spokeswoman for House Democrat Robin Kelly, who represents Pullman, told the Tribune. She said the designation will not have a major effect on the everyday lives of Pullman’s residents.
The Pullman National Monument will receive a modest yearly budget from the federal government, which will go toward programming and maintenance costs, but the monument will rely primarily on support from private donations for funding. The National Park Foundation, the official charity of the national parks, has announced that $8 million in donations has been received so far. “The gifts will help jumpstart critical projects at the new park,” the Foundation said in a press release, “including the establishment of a visitor center, educational and experiential exhibits, and programming in the Administrative Clock Tower Building designed to engage schoolchildren, the community, and visitors about the importance of Pullman to America’s collective history.”
Although the specifics for the National Park Foundation’s plan to revitalize the area have yet to be announced, it’s clear that their direct influence will be limited to the historic district of Pullman, despite the state of many long-distressed homes outside of the district itself.
Founded in the late 1870s, Pullman was designed to fit company owner George Pullman’s ideal of a better industrial American society. He envisioned a company-owned town where his workers and their families could live in brick row houses with access to amenities such as a school, library, and theater. He also wanted to shield his workers from the moral indecencies of nearby Chicago, and discourage the influence of the organized labor movement.
Not everyone, however, shared George Pullman’s idealistic—and often paternalistic—vision of paradise. His control was overbearing, even at times tyrannical. In his 1885 exposé of Pullman in Harper’s Monthly, Richard T. Ely asked: “Are we not frequently trying to offer the gilded cage as a substitute for personal liberty?”
When workers walked out in 1894 over wage cuts without reduced rent, it sowed the seeds for the event that put Pullman on the map: the Pullman Strike—a boycott by railroad workers against Pullman car-carrying trains that ended with a federal injunction, military invervention, and the deaths of thirty strikers in clashes with federal troops.
But despite its historic significance, the fight to save the neighborhood has been a long one. In 1960, consultants to the South End Chamber of Commerce recommended that Pullman be demolished between 111th and 115th to make way for industrial expansion. Citizens fought to save their community, reactivating the Pullman Civic Organization that same year. In 1971, Pullman was designated as a National Historic Landmark, and it later received similar state and local designations. Although the historic district had been saved from demolition, these designations did not come with a steady stream of government revenue.
Pullman residents formed the Historic Pullman Foundation in 1973 and purchased the Hotel Florence—a massive red brick Victorian hotel—to save the building from demolition and to preserve its legacy as one of the original structures built by the Pullman Company. The Hotel and the Clock Tower and Administration Building were sold to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in 1991 as part of an effort to refurbish and preserve the architecture of the historic district of Pullman, but progress has been slow and the buildings are still in need of major repairs. The Clock Tower and Administration Building still hasn’t fully recovered from a fire in 1998.
Although it’s unlikely that National Monument status will spell an end to those preservation efforts, the increased funding and tourism the designation could bring might lighten the load of area preservationists and ensure that the town’s storied past is presented to visitors well into the future.