Could the city’s Pullman community become home to Chicago’s first national park?

Could the city’s Pullman community become home to Chicago’s first national park?

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The historic Pullman neighborhood—an architecturally-significant former 19th century company town that shaped transit, labor and American civil rights—could be on its way to becoming a national park under legislation to be proposed in Congress by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.

This week Jackson plans to introduce legislation asking the National Park Service to conduct a study to determine if the neighborhood’s long-vacant Pullman Factory and Administration Building at 111th and Cottage Grove (seen above), the underutilized neighboring Hotel Florence and possibly other sites in the 130-year-old community could be turned into a national park. The study is a mandated first step in a process that, if successful, could put the neighborhood’s most significant buildings under the purview and management of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Jackson, whose congressional district includes the neighborhood, is scheduled to announce the initiative and further details at a news conference in Pullman this morning. The site would be the National Park Service’s first park in Chicago and its second holding in Illinois, joining the Lincoln Home and surrounding neighborhood in Springfield.

The feasibility study “can only reinforce the need to preserve this great cultural asset,” said Historic Pullman Foundation President Michael Shymanski, an architect. “The National Park Service does an excellent job with the sites that eventually get designated. It doesn’t happen overnight and requires continuous congressional support and broad public interest and support to be fully implemented.”

Railroad car manufacturer George M. Pullman built the area beginning in 1880 on 4,000 acres located outside Chicago’s southern border. Rather than construct the typical workers shanty town, Pullman hired architect Solon S. Beman and landscape architect Nathaniel F. Barrett to give his workers a picturesque and revolutionary village made of handsome brick rowhouses with indoor plumbing— bosses got larger houses—lighted streets, a church, open space, colorful plantings, even a precursor to the shopping mall, complete with a theater. The center of town wasn’t a city hall, but George Pullman’s railroad car factory.

The town became internationally known almost over night. Visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—as if there weren’t enough to see there—found time to catch Illinois Central trains south to visit Pullman.

The utopia fell apart in the recession of 1894 when Pullman cut wages but did not reduce rents he charged workers to live in the town. Pullman’s decision led to a nationwide railroad strike by more than 250,000 workers sympathetic to the Pullman workers’ cause. Before it was all over, the likes of Clarence Darrow, Eugene V. Debs and President Grover Cleveland would play roles in the debacle. 

Pullman died in 1897 and his company was forced to sell off the town, leaving behind a stand-out collection of gas-light era architecture. Chicago annexed the area a few years later. The company retained the factory and built the luxurious railroad cars into the next century. The Pullman company’s force of passenger train porters—mainly African American men—became fighters in the American labor and civil rights movement under A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The state of Illinois bought the factory in 1990 with an eye toward making it a tourist attraction. The site sat empty and in December 1998, a homeless man touched off an extra alarm blaze that nearly destroyed the complex. The factory was largely rebuilt afterward but awaits a use.

Jackson’s plan is part of a resurgence Pullman has been experiencing lately. Last October, the American Planning Association listed the community among its Top 10 Great American Neighborhoods for 2011, citing the neighborhood’s well-preserved Victorian architecture and other amenities. And a multi-million dollar retail and residential community called Pullman Park is being constructed on the eastern edge of the community near 111th and the Bishop Ford Expressway.

“It’s time to recognize the historical significance Pullman has played through the years,” said Cynthia McMahon, a third-generation Pullman resident. “The South Side needs a positive boost for a change and for funding to come.”