Pullman at a Glance: National Parks in the 21st Century

Pullman’s iconic row houses.
Pullman's administration building and clock tower.
Pullman’s administration building and clock tower.

When you think of National Parks, you probably think of parks like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, both spacious parks of natural wonder that receive over 3 million visitors per year each (the Grand Canyon hosted nearly 5 million visitors in 2014!). In recent years, however, the Park Service has been garnering more Historical Parks, or parks that tell a piece of nationally significant history. These aren’t just battlefields, anymore. For example: Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, which was logged and replanted long before the rest of the country was thinking about the issues of deforestation, tells a story of land stewardship. Most importantly, the park is in a beautiful Vermont setting where you can not only hear the story but see it for yourself. Pullman National Monument, one of the most recent inductees to the National Park System, is rightly expanding how we should think about National Parks. Pullman is not only a park of historical significance, but it tells an under-told story and is in an urban setting.

Pullman’s Greenstone Church.

A 30-minute train ride south of the Loop, Pullman is now a suburb to the ever growing Chicago metropolis. It is no mistake that Pullman is located on–and laid out in purposeful order next to–the main north-south railroad line. It was built by the railroad tycoon George Pullman, the man responsible for the Pullman railroad car (have you heard of Pullman Porters?). The Pullman car changed travel, providing more space and luxurious accommodations for those who could afford it (it also unwittingly provided transport of African American publications that were not allowed in the post). One of Pullman’s employees even designed the accordion-like space that enables you to move between cars on a moving train.

The town of Pullman was constructed in the late nineteenth century as a company town that served as the center of the the Pullman Company’s operations for several decades. Row houses were available to rent in a wide price range, getting grander in size and decoration as you move through the neighborhoods. The Florence Hotel, a large arcade building, and a marketplace were built. A church was built with no specific denomination with the idea that a community religious group could rent the space (it is now the Greenstone United Methodist Church). Lawn care and other maintenance work was done by the company as part of paid rent. Pullman employees were not required to live in Pullman and one could live in Pullman without working for the company.

These arcades run around a market building that suffered from a large fire. Pullman hopes that an increase in tourism will make a restoration of the market possible.

Despite its utopian ideas, Pullman was subject to the same troubles of the United States as a whole. People came for the opportunity, but many were limited by race, ethnicity, gender, and economic status. Pullman was the first nationally significant company to recognize an African-American labor union, but it was also the site of a nation-wide railroad strike in 1894 protesting a decrease in wages. To make matters worse, when wages went down, rent didn’t. In 1898, the Pullman Company was forced by the Illinois Supreme Court to divest ownership of the town. Pullman was subsequently annexed to the city of Chicago.

The Pullman Company had a downturn, eventually dissolving in 1981, but Pullman the town lives on. The Historic Pullman Foundation and the Pullman State Historic Site are working together with the National Park Service and community members to preserve the town and provide interpretation opportunities for visitors.

Interior of the admin. building shows damage from fire and the challenges of making industrial spaces viable for visitors.

The preservation and interpretation opportunities at Pullman are just beginning to grow. Row house owners are restoring their original front porches, many of which were covered or altered in the early 20th century. Community members have begun a community garden that serves a dual purpose: its borders align with a wing of the factory that is no longer standing, allowing visitors a visual of just how big the factory was. The Historic Pullman Foundation is restoring several row houses to tell different stories of the town.

Incorporating a site into the National Park System that is not only urban but includes industrial sites is monumental. Telling the many stories that come with this and making industrial spaces safe for visitors are some of the many challenges that will be faced. Recognition as a Monument was a huge step forward: Pullman may not have the tallest waterfall in the US or a natural geyser that works like clockwork, but the stories it has to tell are as large as the Grand Canyon is deep.

A note on my sources: I had the pleasure to attend a full day tour of Pullman through the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) Conference in April 2015. Much of the information I garnered from our tour guides and followed up online. I highly recommend visiting Pullman! Before you go: check out the Historic Pullman Foundation and Pullman State Historic Site, as well as the Pullman National Monument information. They each own properties in Pullman and offer various visitor opportunities. 

Pullman Administration Building (foreground) with Florence Hotel and Arcade Building (left to right) in the distance, c1885. The Arcade Building is no longer standing and the lake was filled in when the railroad was widened and raised. Administration Building and Florence Hotel can be seen, today. Photo thanks to Pullman State Historic Site.

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