Pullman: a town worth celebrating

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, November 11, 2022

Pullman Administration Building and factory in 1890. Illinois Digital Archives, Illinois State Library, Illinois Secretary of State collection
Even if you don’t know the history, you know you’ve arrived somewhere special as you drive east on 111thStreet on Chicago’s south side, duck under the tracks of Metra’s Electric District, and suddenly encounter one of the gems of American architecture and urban planning.

Welcome to Pullman, the one-time home of the Pullman Palace Car Co., its famous company town, and today the site of an exciting urban revival. 

Pullman has been a lot of things over its nearly 150-year existence: monument to founder George M. Pullman, so-called model employee town, crux of national labor strife, and, not incidentally, a bold attempt at integrated manufacturing on a grand scale. At its peak before the turn of the century, the town was home to thousands of Pullman employees living in hundreds of row houses built by the company, surrounded by the shop floors upon which they labored.

Pullman was declared a National Historic District in 1970 and later achieved landmark status with both the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, all adding up to what might be the neighborhood’s crowning achievement, its designation in 2015 as a National Monument, making it part of the National Parks system.

George M. Pullman. Classic Trains collection
All this success was generally the theme a couple of weeks ago during a luncheon and tour for community and railroad leaders, sponsored by the Historic Pullman Foundation and designed to promote a number of exciting developments in the neighborhood. The entire Pullman district is actually a patchwork of sections variously administered by the Foundation, the state of Illinois, and the National Parks. This unusual partnership seems to work well. 

Our host was Joe Szabo, a Chicagoan whose long list of railroad career achievements (trainman on Illinois Central, United Transportation Union legislative director, head of the Federal Railroad Administration) helped prepare him for his current position as the Foundation’s president. 

For Szabo, the story of Pullman is an indispensable part of a larger, national narrative.

“America’s stories live in Pullman,” Szabo told me. “Whether it is how Pullman transformed railroad transportation at a time when railroads were transforming America; the impact that Pullman’s ‘perfect town’ had on urban planning thought and the development of communities; the 1894 strike’s prominence in labor history; or the roll of the Pullman porters in serving as the foundation of the civil rights movement, these are the stories of the American experience. And they remain relevant today.”

We could see just how relevant by walking around Pullman. Its deep red brick buildings were awash in warm October light, the neighborhood studded with the creations of Solon Spencer Beman, a major architect in late 19th-century Chicago. Sadly, some of Beman’s greatest buildings — including Chicago’s Grand Central Station and Milwaukee’s Pabst Building — were destroyed.

Visitors Center, formerly the Pullman Administration Building, now fully restored. Historic Pullman Foundation photo
But his work lives on in Pullman, most prominently with the ornate Administration Building, now serving as the Visitors Center and headquarters for the Foundation. Topped off by a four-sided clock tower, the Romanesque Revival building houses the Foundation’s first-rate museum, which offers an engrossing view of the complicated and often contradictory history of Pullman the man and Pullman the town. More on that in a moment.

There’s more going on just outside the Visitors Center: restoration of the North Factory Wing, which extends from the Visitor Center and will be a future site of industrial exhibits, eventually to include actual Pullman cars; the famed Hotel Florence, featured prominently in the movie “Road to Perdition” and well on its way toward a reopening; the Greenstone Church, glowing in its serpentine limestone facade and still active as a United Methodist church; and, of course, blocks and blocks of stand-alone and row houses, now privately owned and many of them lovingly refurbished according to strict district preservation rules.

The excitement extends beyond the borders of the historic district. Aware of the growing interest around Pullman, Metra has embarked on a dramatic upgrade of its 111th Street station, to include a climate-controlled station entrance, new platforms, and architectural details that echo the Pullman esthetic.

Our walking tour was led by Ranger Sarah Buchmeier, who, like all NPS rangers I’ve encountered over the years, impressed me with her enthusiasm and knowledge. Pullman’s history is fraught, its status as a pioneering American industrial concern overshadowed by the labor troubles that culminated in that bloody 1894 strike. The town of Pullman had its downside. As historian John H. White, Jr., has written: “Many of the residents were less enthusiastic. They found life in Pullman limited, undemocratic, and puritanical.”

My impression is that the full story of Pullman is being told forthrightly, both in the illuminating exhibits inside the museum and by passionate advocates such as Buchmeier. I hope all the parties dedicated to preserving Pullman — the Foundation, the state, NPS — continue to expand on that narrative.

Meanwhile, kudos to Joe Szabo for making Pullman a personal crusade. “I knew that I wanted Pullman to be the cornerstone of my retirement,” he says. “I got my start in local government as a member of the local plan commission and retired as head of our regional planning agency. As a former train conductor and labor leader, the stories of Pullman personally resonate with me.”

As they will for anyone who makes that same drive along 111th Street. 

The Historical Pullman Foundation deserves your support. You can find out more by visiting its website:

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