A Visit to the Historic Pullman District

Posted by on Jan 2, 2009 in Neighborhood | Comments Off

After being appropriately prepped as a result of our visit to the Chicago Cultural Center we decided to head off yesterday to visit the Pullman Historic District, a planned industrial and residential community dating back to the 1880s, on Chicago’s South Side.

In order to get there we took the red line all the way to the end and then connected onto the 111 bus. What was very interesting to note was that the population on Chicago’s south side is predominantly black, as much of the black population from the US South had migrated northwards after the 2nd World War. Actually Chicago was known as one of the most racially segregated cities, and today, with the demolition of many of the bleak urban housing projects, the city is attempting to create more integration between its black and white population.

The Pullman Historic District is the manifestation of a very interesting social experiment: It was built between 1880 and 1884 as a planned model industrial town by George M. Pullman for the Pullman Palace Car Company. George Pullman (1831 to 1897) arrived on the scene with a design for the Pullman sleeping carriage which he originally developed to carry the dead body of Abraham Lincoln to his funeral. As a result the Pullman Sleeping Car Company was established and a whole town was built around the business and named after its originator.

We went to the Visitor Center and saw an 18-minute movie that described George Pullman and his ambitious plans for his development of a model community, a total environment, that he intended to be superior to that available to the working class elsewhere. By so doing, he hoped to avoid strikes, attract the most skilled workers and attain greater productivity as a result of the better health and spirit of his employees.

To achieve his vision, George Pullman hired Solon S. Beaman, landscape architect Nathan F. Barrett and civil engineer, Benzette Williams. The town was constructed by Pullman employees, using local red clay from Lake Calument and component parts that were produced in the Pullman factory. This project is one of the first examples of industrial technology and mass production in large-scale housing. The town was a complete planned community and included schools, a library and hotel all run by the company.

Pullman’s large Arcade building (now demolished and the present location of the Visitor Center) featured a restaurant, a bank, a library, a post office, a theater, and numerous shops. It was a forerunner of the modern shopping center. The town was completely self-contained. Pullman residents enjoyed the manmade Lake Vista and plenty of parks and promenades, features typically missing from Chicago’s working-class neighbourhoods.

The town of Pullman was a model of financial efficiency. Pullman demanded that the company return an 8-percent profit and the town return a 6-percent profit. A huge engine pumped sewage from the town to a nearby Pullman-owned farm, where it was used as fertilizer for produce that would be sold back in the town.

George Pullman maintained ultimate control over the town, even restricting workers’ access to alcohol, as the Hotel Florence only sold alcohol to out-of-town visitors. Resentment towards this paternalistic despot started to build. Misfortune struck with the decline of the Pullman car’s success which forced George to slash wages. Workers responded with a strike, fuelled by Pullman’s failure to reduce grocery costs and rent, but George simply fired them. The situation deteriorated as railway workers refused to handle Pullman cars and President Cleveland had to intervene, sending federal troops to the scene. The workers were forced to sign documentation declaring that they wouldn’t join a union.

Although the strike collapsed, George Pullman’s model for handling the “labour problem” had failed. Pullman had prided himself on his paternalistic approach with his workers, and he could not see how his heavy-handed methods had resulted in this worker rebellion. Criticized and scorned, Pullman died a bitter man in 1897.

In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the Pullman Company to sell the non-industrial land in the neighborhood to its inhabitants, determining that the Pullman Palace Car Company did not have the proper authority to provide nonmanufacturing services such as renting property. Finally, residents could buy their homes.

Robert T. Lincoln, the son of President Lincoln, became head of the company after Pullman’s death and simplified its name to the Pullman Company. The Pullman Company continued to produce its famous cars at 111th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. But with the explosion of automobile ownership, rail passenger traffic went into rapid decline. In 1957, Pullman Incorporated closed its plant in the neighborhood.

Only three years later, the city of Chicago included Pullman on a list of “blighted and deteriorating areas” that required clearance and redevelopment. Residents responded by forming the Pullman Civic Organization and began working to gain landmark status. The Historic Pullman Foundation, which formed in 1973, helps ensure the area’s preservation and restoration by sponsoring various events such as neighborhood walking tours, annual house tours, Sunday brunch at the Florence Hotel, and presentations at the Pullman Visitor Center.

In many ways the housing development was ahead of its time. Each building, most of them townhouses, had gas and water, complete sanitary facilities and abundant quantities of sunlight and fresh air, which was a rarity at that time, when the working class was mostly housed in squalid tenements. Originally the town of Pullman housed about 12,000 people while today it still has a population of about 2,000, with an ethnically and economically mixed background.

Other famous buildings on the Pullman grounds include the Hotel Florence, named after Pullman’s favourite daughter. It opened in 1881 as a hospitality showcase for visitors to George Pullman’s perfect town and originally had 50 rooms, a dining room, a billiard room, a parlor and the only bar in Pullman. The Historic Pullman Foundation managed to save the hotel from demolition and today the hotel is closed to the public while it is undergoing a capital improvement program to restore it for use with the State Historic Site.

The Pullman Clock Tower and Administration Building was built in 1880 for the executive offices of the Pullman Palace Car Company, at the time one of the most beautiful industrial complexes in the United States. In 1998 the Clock Tower and Administration Building were seriously damaged by a fire set by an arsonist. Since then the building has been stabilized and the restored Clock Tower was put back on just a few days before our visit. Future use of the site is currently being debated by a task force institute by Chicago Mayor Daley and Illinois Governor Ryan.

Another interesting building located on the Pullman Historic District is the Queen Ann-style Market Hall which was built in 1881. The Market provided a venue for fresh fruits, meats and other goods. The original market was destroyed by fire in 1892 and a new market was built on the existing foundation. The market is surrounded by four colonnaded circular apartment buildings that were built with the new Market Hall in 1893. Unfortunately the Market Hall Building was destroyed by fire in 1973 and today it awaits restoration.

The Greenstone Church, located centrally in the Pullman Historic District, has an exterior facade of serpentine stone quarried in Pennsylvania. The sanctuary is unchanged with the exception of the chancel arrangements. All of the cherry wood is original. Today the church is still occupied by a Methodist congregation.

The visit to the Pullman Historic District was very interesting. It taught us about a different time of ultimate laissez-faire capitalism, industrial growth and immigration, labour unrest, urban planning, architecture and the ultimate failure of a rather unique social experiment.

Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions(http://www.travelandtransitions.com). Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. You will also find stories about life and the transitions that we face as we go through our own personal life-long journeys.

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The article with photos is published at Travel and Transitions – Travel Stories
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