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Visit Chicago’s Pullman District and Discover Icons of History

By: John O’Connor,
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Visionary ideas for a planned community more than a century ago are still relevant today and can be seen in mansions and rowhouses on the city’s south side.

It was a remarkable, if short-lived, 19th-century blue-collar utopia.

George M. Pullman, famous and wealthy from the luxurious sleeping car that bore his name, in 1880 began building whole neighborhoods of homes that he rented to workers at his state-of-the art factory in Chicago.

Although the experiment lasted only 18 years, most of the neighborhood remained intact for more than a century — until the landmark Pullman Works administration building and its 12-story clock tower were set ablaze by an arsonist on Dec. 1, 1998.

But these icons of history and neighborhood pride have since been restored and can be seen by visitors wanting to explore the industrial roots of the city's southeast side.

"I was afraid how it was going to be viewed, that the headline in the paper on page 17 was going to be, 'Old factory on the south side burns,'" Shari Parker, a 20-year Pullman resident and volunteer at the site, says of the fire. "What we got was a lot of incredibly good publicity.

The area is a symbol of "working-class men and women who made things, real things," Parker says. She added that "it's terribly corny" to say 'this is what built America.' But it is!"

Visitors may get a taste of that history beginning at the partially restored 1881 Hotel Florence, which Pullman built for visiting executives and salesmen. Tours of the rebuilt administration building and clock tower are available by special arrangement.

The clock tower merely punctuates the history around it. While most of the original factory buildings are gone, the 12-block neighborhood — with homes built almost entirely of brick made from Lake Calumet clay and styled in Romanesque Revival or Gothic architecture — is remarkably unchanged.

Visitors can see the homes, from mansions built for Pullman executives to rowhouses, on guided or self-guided tours offered by the Historic Pullman Foundation. The homes are privately owned and can only be seen from the outside; many of the occupants have lived in the neighborhood for years. But a foundation-sponsored house tour annually opens doors to some of the homes and there are other events throughout the year.

In sharp contrast to the period's nightmarish worker tenements, these homes boasted indoor plumbing, gas for cooking and lighting, daily garbage pickup, front and back yards and nearby parks.

All this was part of the plan by architect Solon Spencer Beman, who was just 27 when Pullman hired him to design not just a community but a lifestyle.

Pullman "was convinced that by creating artful spaces, nicely landscaped spaces, open spaces, that he would raise the moral character of the industrial worker, which was fairly grim at the time," says Mike Wagenbach, Pullman site superintendent for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Pullman's visionary ideas for a planned city crop up in such current urban planning buzzwords as "smart growth" and "sustainable communities," according to Historic Pullman Foundation president Michael Shymanski.

"It's a micro-version of the city of Chicago in its diversity," says Shymanski, an architect. "It's one of the few neighborhoods on the far south side that has retained its continuity of population over the past 40 years, and yet it is economically, socially and racially integrated."

Pullman's downfall came in 1893, when a national recession hit Chicago particularly hard. Pullman cut jobs and wages, but not rents. A nationally supported strike followed, ended by federal intervention.

The attitude that Pullman's company town was paternalistic and "un-American" culminated in an 1898 Illinois Supreme Court ruling ordering the company to sell non-industrial property.

The company remained in business into the 1980s, and while it didn't stay at its original site, the factory buildings had industrial tenants for decades. The entire neighborhood became a National Historic Landmark in 1971.

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