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Destination Unknown

Changes on track for Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood.

Architects Newspaper

June 2015

Two months after President Obama declared the historic company town of Pullman, Illinois a national monument, a group of architects, planners, and preservationists are examining ways to balance economic development and historic preservation in the newly protected neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and AIA Chicago in April kicked off an initiative called “Positioning Pullman” with a three-day design charrette on how to grow and protect this neighborhood, which is struggling to maintain its prized stock of Queen Anne and Romanesque architecture in light of the economic challenges facing much of the South Side.

Luther Mason, pastor at the Solon Spencer Beman-designed Greenstone Church in Pullman (which hosted a charrette meeting), had an uncle that was a porter on Pullman sleeper cars. “The story’s gotta be told, the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he said.

The town of Pullman began in 1880 as an experiment in industrial capitalism, but it reached its historical apotheosis as an icon of unionizing and collective bargaining. Built by luxury railcar tycoon George Pullman as the ideal company town, it was designed by the then 26-year-old Beman to be clean, orderly, and above all, profitable. When Pullman reduced wages in 1893 but didn’t offer rent relief, a strike ensued, crippling the entire industry. Pullman won that battle, but lost the war. In 1937, The Pullman Company (the largest employer of African-Americans in the nation) signed the first contract with an African-American labor union, the Pullman Porters. However, by 1957 most of Pullman’s industrial empire was in serious decline.

The neighborhood has been the subject of seven studies since the late 1980s, most of which has gone unimplemented. Attendees of April’s charrette say this time is different: NPCA Midwest Regional Director Lynn McClure said that the plans to emerge out of Positioning Pullman will be “living art” that will give state and local agencies a vision to promote. Also, 80 percent of the development in the neighborhood over the last five years has been from private businesses, McClure said, including the Pullman Park commercial strip and William McDonough + Partners’ factory for Method, a brand of environmentally-friendly cleaning products. Most importantly, McClure said, the national monument declaration could attract some 300,000 visitors and $40 million in new economic activity each year.

Surrounded by vast warehouses and nearly 12 miles south of the Loop, Pullman feels cloistered from the energy and rhythms of the rest of the city. Queen Anne rowhouses made of red brick line the streets and are punctuated by the ornate but mostly shuttered Hotel Florence and Pullman Administration complex. The charrette’s historic preservation team created three scenarios to reactivate these buildings and the wider neighborhood, re-capturing Pullman’s small town vitality with the addition of new housing, restaurants, retail space, and cultural programs.

“Pullman, Roseland, and the entire Far South Side were once forgotten communities,” said 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale in an April press statement. “Businesses are opening, housing is being rehabbed—we’re rebuilding the thriving live-work community that Pullman once was.”

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