A visit to the Pullman Historic District

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.

Recently reinstalled Pullman Clock Tower

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 Anne-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.

Greenstone Church

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.

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