Chicago owes its status among US cities to the railroad. In 1848, the first train chugged along five miles of track bringing two cars of wheat into town. At the time, Chicago had only about 14,000 citizens. In just two years the population doubled. A hub for lines heading east and west, the railroad fueled the city’s economy for years to come.
No Chicago neighborhood is more closely linked with railroad history than Pullman. Mr. George Pullman believed that happy workers would be more productive, so he developed a planned community with residences and public services around his eponymous Pullman Palace Car Company factory. The town was constructed on 300 acres south of Chicago between 1881 and 1894.
Mr. Pullman and his architect, Solon Spencer Berman, took pains to construct a variety of housing configurations while maintaining a common architectural style. The row houses were comfortable and contained indoor plumbing, gas, and sewer – not a given for the time. In addition to the factory and residences, the town included a hotel, a public market, stables, several parks, unique churches, a school, and utility buildings. The surviving structures are all landmarks in their own right.
The Pullman factory thrived until a depression in 1893 reduced demand for the luxury train cars. Eventually George Pullman was forced to cut wages and lay off workers. With lower incomes, the workers could not afford the rent and went on strike in 1894. Following George Pullman’s death in 1897 the company sold the houses to their inhabitants. Chicago annexed the community in 1889.
Eventually the manufacturing plant was closed and some of the parklands were paved over. In the 1960s the entire neighborhood was threatened with demolition to make way for a large industrial park. A group of citizens organized to protest the demolition and promote preservation of the architectural landmark. Following these efforts Pullman was designated an Illinois Historic District in 1969 and a National Historic Landmark District in 1970. The community is now pursing recognition as a National Historic Park and is among the suitors for President Obama’s Presidential Library.
The hope is that the private homeowners will continue to restore their homes to the original period construction. This guide, which among other details, comes complete with details for fabricating the historic windows mullions, should assist that goal. Visitors can monitor the progress at the annual Pullman House Tour. It’s one of the longest standing open house events in the country.
Despite the many existential challenges faced by Pullman, the neighborhood remains quite vibrant. Perhaps aided by the architectural brilliance of the place, the residents of Pullman have endured many economic winters and can foresee another golden age for the community. If you are interested in architecture and urban planning, Pullman is a must-see destination on your next trip to Chicago.