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Visiting Pullman

By August 17, 2017Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

On the way back from Michigan I wanted to stop at Pullman on Chicago’s south side to better understand what is happening with any preservation activities. After all, Pullman looms large in the history of railroading, industrial and urban development, labor relations and civil rights. It’s an important place.

For starters, you have to understand how big Pullman was and is. A relic of 19th century industrial paternalism, the idea was to surround the factory with a model community to house the employees. It was a company town within the city. Residential neighborhoods extended for seven blocks north and four blocks south of the factory buildings. There was a hotel, parks and shopping areas. 

Pullman at it’s height.

Looking south at the administration building. In the distance are the Florence Hotel at left and the Arcade shopping center at right. The interim visitor center is located on the old Arcade site.

Railcar manufacturing lasted here until 1957, when most of the original buildings were demolished. Pullman became a national landmark district in 1971. After that there has been a long and rather complicated campaign to preserve what was left.

I had been hearing that there were preservation activities underway, but exactly what was unclear from a distance. I found the answers at the Visitor Center, which occupies a former American Legion building across the park from the Florence Hotel.

Starting in 1973, the nonprofit Historic Pullman Foundation had been laboring alone save as much of Pullman as possible. They purchased the 1881 Florence Hotel in 1975 to rescue it from demolition. Since then they’ve purchased a couple of other buildings, including the Market Hall former retail center.

The State of Illinois bought the industrial portion of the 12.4 acre site in 1991, along with the 1881 Florence Hotel. Since then the state has put $26 million into the site to stabilize the existing buildings. The hotel restoration is still underway. When completed, it will be used for museum displays and events. The Foundation would prefer to reopen the restaurant they ran in the hotel until 2000.

The Florence Hotel, with the administration building beyond it.

The Florence Hotel today.

A 1998 fire destroyed part of the erecting shop and administration building. This was a real setback to the restoration plans and created pressure to demolish what was still standing. The Foundation successfully resisted it. The state has invested $10 million to rebuild the clock tower building.

The administration building today. The south wing was lost in the 1998 fire. This will be the site of the new visitor center in 2020.

Their efforts were bolstered considerably in 2015, when President Obama designated Pullman a National Monument. This places it under National Park Service protection. The current visitor center is an interim facility, pending restoration of a portion of the administration building, now underway. Funded by the National Park Foundation and a $1 million grant from the Union Pacific Foundation, it is expected to be completed by 2020.

The other significant parts of Pullman are the residential neighborhoods. They range from apartments to row houses to single family homes. All feature the same dark red brick. They’re in private hands now, but the neighborhoods are mostly fully occupied, tree lined and very intact. 

Other non-profit actors are involved in the neighborhoods. The Bielenburg Historic Pullman House Foundation owns three properties and is restoring them, including the house of Pullman top manager Thomas Dunbar. 

Artspace, a non-profit out of Minneapolis, has purchased two worker tenements called Blockhouse A and C, and is restoring them as artist housing and studio space.

Although the emphasis has been to restore buildings, the Historic Pullman Foundation would eventually like to see restored railcars exhibited. The Advance, a private car assigned to Pullman president Robert Lincoln, is under restoration in St. Louis.

The Pullman Porter Museum

The Pullman Company impacted railroad history in so many ways, through manufacturing of passenger and freight cars, and of course through its role as North America’s rolling hotelier. The sleeping car empire inadvertently played a pivotal role in the African American struggle for civil rights. Pullman exclusively staffed its sleeping cars with African Americans. As so many industries did, Pullman exploited its Black employees. They responded by organizing the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters, headed by A. Philip Randolph. Pullman fought the union all through the 1920s and early 1930s, before finally recognizing it in 1935.

In an era when African Americans were systematically excluded from all but menial employment, the porters represented something of an exception. Despite long hours and not great pay, they achieved a high status within their communities thanks to sheer numbers and the success of their union.

But there was more. Because Pullman went everywhere, so did the porters and their union. It was a ready-made national organization and it led the fight for civil rights. Randolph had the ear of Eleanor Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, President Roosevelt. Randolph was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. It was the union’s swan song, because the passenger train was on the way out. Pullman’s sleeping car service was farmed out to the individual railroads in 1968. 

The porters’ pivotal role in the struggle is documented and celebrated at the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, located in a house on the north edge of Pullman. It was opened in 1995 by Dr. Lyn Hughes, who heads it to this day. 

The house’s three stories house good displays on Randolph, the history of the union and the lives of the porters. Well worth a visit.


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