Utopia in Pullman
A rail magnate's worker paradise in Chicago
It’s a small world. More than thirty years after I interviewed the Mike Shymanski described in this piece, we crossed paths again, he being part of a Chicago fraternal order of planners who asked me to edit a book of essays commemorating the centenary of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. As for Pullman itself, its situation is little changed from forty years ago—see here and here.
Even for an urban industrial community, Pullman, Illinois, has undergone a remarkable series of transformations. In 1896 Pullman was voted the world's most perfectly planned town at the Prague International Hygienic and Pharmaceutical Exposition. By 1930 it was, in the words of one of its historians, "just another industrial neighborhood . . . pocketed by blight" on Chicago's bleak South Side; and in the 1960's it was nearly razed to make room for a park. Today Pullman enjoys, in the words of a booster, "an excellent future . . . as a historical model and as a living urban community."
Sleeping-car magnate George Pullman established "his" town in 1880. Pullman had built a new factory on the open prairie, thirteen miles from the Loop. He wanted a town that would give his workers and their families the best in housing, sanitation, and educational and recreational facilities. He did so on the theory that such an environment would in turn provide workers who were healthier, more stable, and more productive than the less-favored occupants of nineteenth-century American industrial slums.
The town of Pullman was not a charity but a business proposition conceived by one of the more hardheaded businessmen of his era. Pullman expected his Utopia to make a profit of six per cent per annum, just like the company's other ventures. That expectation proved to be only one of his miscalculations.
The experiment failed, victimized by the 1894 Pullman strike, by residents' resentment of high rents and paternalism, and ultimately by George Pullman's own undemocratic vision. In 1898 (a year after the death of its founder) the Pullman Company was ordered by a court to sell the town.
Five years earlier, the wife of the town's agent had made a prediction. "When the present structures of the city shall have crumbled," she wrote, "the Pullman idea . . . will continue its widening influence and go down the years as an increasing benefaction." It was not the structures that crumbled, but the idea. Present-day Pullman is a historic landmark district as well as a thriving community of some three thousand inhabitants. Ironically, as it begins a second century, the town comes closer to fulfilling George Pullman's hopes than it ever did in his lifetime.
Pullman's architecture gave it a tangible sense of community. As designed by New York architect Solon Beman and landscaper Nathan Barrett, the main part of the town was squeezed into sixteen square blocks that eventually housed more than twelve thousand people. They were quartered in phalanxes of two- and three-story row houses built of bricks from clay dredged from the bottom of nearby Lake Calumet. Narrow and cramped, the houses nonetheless boasted skylights, gas, running water, and front and back yards—all innovations in worker housing of the period. In expanding the original town, the designer built more than eighteen hundred housing units between 1880 and 1891.
Those structures eventually included town houses, tenements, and boarding houses. Set on broad (sixty-six feet wide) streets underlaid with modern sewers, the buildings were distinguished more by their solidity than their external appearance—which, despite architect Beman's thoughtful use of chimneys and varying roof lines, seldom transcended monotony.
Pullman was no mere dormitory and shipping area, however. It supplied residents with a school, an athletic field, a theater, a library, and parks. Like the numerous "new towns" that have sprung up recently, Pullman was, and is, a self-contained world.
That world has been George Ryan's for all of his sixty years. Ryan is a retail jeweler in the Chicago suburbs. He serves as president of the Pullman Civic Organization and qualifies by his long tenure as one of the town's informal historians. Ryan's grandfather came to Pullman as a cabinetmaker in the last century, and his mother still lives there.
Pullman, Ryan explains, was designed with different classes of housing to accommodate different levels of workers. "Over on Langley Avenue was what people used to call Incubator Row. Houses were small and inexpensive, and a lot of families moved there when they were getting started." Even before that, many couples lived on Honeymoon Row, a similarly modest section one block away. Single men resided in boarding houses and sometimes in tiny flats. "There was a row of tenements along Langley too," Ryan recalls. "They were barracks, actually, with one toilet facility on each floor—like a bus depot."
Houses assigned to skilled craftsmen were larger, reflecting the tenants' higher status in local society; Foreman's Row was more elaborate yet, although neither type departed much from the basic Pullman house plan. The exception was a row of detached and semidetached "boulevarde" houses, some boasting as many as ten rooms (one even has a ballroom): Those houses constituted Executive Row. Approximately twenty such places were built for Pullman Company managers or—like the Graystone Mansion—for a succession of town physicians.
Then and now, despite the strictures of the company town, Pullman families could improve their housing as they grew in income and size. "This is my third Pullman house," George Ryan notes of the comfortable dwelling that he shares with his wife. "When I was born my parents lived in an apartment a few blocks from here, and my mother still lives in the house we moved to after that."
More than a thousand Pullman houses survive. Like the town itself, however, they have not survived unchanged. Prior to the 1970's, many of them were subdivided, porched, painted, and shuttered—changes that owners are now being encouraged to undo in deference to historical authenticity. One of the survivors is occupied by Natalie and Phil Harvey. The Harveys, relative newcomers to Pullman, moved there in 1978. They live in a seven-room house that like most of those nearby is in the midst of renewal. "Sometimes it seems like you never get finished," says Mrs. Harvey, a Marylander with a towering enthusiasm for Pullman. As soon as they moved in, the Harveys joined the house tours, gardening, and social work of the civic organization, which counts about forty-five per cent of the town's households among its members.
Pullman's exteriors are protected now by their official historic status, but the interiors are amenable to modernization. In the Harveys' case that means converting an upstairs bedroom into a spacious bathroom, removing dropped ceilings, and undoing the vaguely Moorish details of some doorways.
"Thirteen years ago you could buy one of these houses for seventy-five hundred dollars," Mrs. Harvey says. "Recently one of the houses on Executive Row sold for fifty-five thousand dollars. We could get half again as much now as we paid for our place just two years ago, and there's a waiting list for buyers." Such evidence of neighborhood economic resurgence is a welcome change from past decades, when the median home value in Pullman was as little as one third that of surrounding communities. As recently as 1968, local bankers were reluctant to write a mortgage loan for a term lasting more than nine years; today mortgages can be obtained for periods of up to twenty years on large loans.
Pullmanites do not have an unbridled yearning for rising property values. As long-term residents rather than speculators, they are concerned about the tax hikes that inevitably accompany increasing values. Furthermore, they do not want to see their more vulnerable neighbors (the town has a substantial number of retirees) priced out of the local market. Residents who leave are being replaced by young professionals and artisans, and in some cases by former Pullman children who have come home.
If Pullman's houses made the place a home for its residents, its public buildings made it a town. The most remarkable of those was the Arcade, a prototypical indoor shopping mall whose three stories covered nearly an acre of ground and encompassed about thirty shops, meeting rooms, a library, a bank, a post office, a Y.M.C.A., doctors' and dentists' offices, and a theater seating nearly a thousand.
The town was also provided with a gas works, a hotel, a hospital, a community stable ("so there is nothing offensive in the alleys," notes a local resident), and a one-hundred-forty-acre farm. Fertilized by local sewage, the farm supplied Pullman and environs with fresh vegetables. All those structures were designed in a style described as secular Gothic or Romanesque. Unfortunately, the Arcade, and the farm, gas works, water tower, school, and other local landmarks, have been burned, demolished, or simply swallowed up by settlement.
But many buildings survive—if only barely. The Market Hall was built in 1893 to replace an earlier version destroyed by fire. Situated at the epicenter of a square and surrounded by a quartet of apartment buildings, whose curved facades are graced by arched walkways, the hall brought Pullmanites fresh produce and meat. It burned in 1931 and again in 1973.
Within a few blocks of the Market Hall stand the Greenstone Church, so named because of the green-tinged serpentine rock from which it was built; a boarding house, now in use as the Historic Pullman Center; the Pullman Executive Club, originally a haven with billiards and good food, now being refitted as a restaurant and neighborhood club; the Pullman administration building, currently in use by a steel company; and the grande dame of the survivors, the Hotel Florence, a four-story palace that George Pullman hoped would offer the traveler the kind of luxury he had come to expect from Pullman cars.
The Hotel Florence has become the symbol of Pullman's renaissance. For a period during the 1970's, the hotel was a flophouse threatened with demolition. A decade earlier, the town itself had almost been leveled: Early in the 1960's, a land-use plan announced by the City of Chicago earmarked it as the site of a new industrial park. The community organized in self-defense as the Pullman Civic Organization. Not until 1968, however, did residents begin to appreciate that preserving Pullman as a historic site would also preserve it as a place to live. A committee of the civic organization succeeded in getting Pullman recognized as a historic landmark, first by Illinois (in 1969) and later by the United States Department of the Interior and the City of Chicago.
In addition, the residents founded, in 1973, the not-for-profit Historic Pullman Foundation, which has undertaken an ambitious program of property acquisition, stabilization, and restoration. It has taken title to two properties—the Hotel Florence and the site of the now-demolished Arcade—and has mortgages on the Market Hall and the boarding house that now functions as the Historic Pullman Center.
The Historic Pullman Foundation has described the Hotel Florence as "the key to restoration of the Pullman Historic District . . . a community rallying point whose fate will be seen by residents as a harbinger of the [town's] future direction." Preparatory to reopening the Florence, the foundation has spent about half a million dollars for a new roof, a sprinkler system, a thorough cleaning, and refinishing of the hotel's cherry woodwork. The refurbished restaurant, which is open six days a week, now turns a small profit. The overall restoration project is expected to cost close to $3 million.
Historic Pullman now has five full-time staffers. One is Pat Shymanski, the thirty-four-year-old director of development, who presides over grant applications and fund raising from her office on the second floor of the Hotel Florence. "Up to now," Mrs. Shymanski explains, "we have relied almost entirely on private foundation grants and community development funds," augmented with income from rental properties, membership contributions, fees charged tourists, and profits from the hotel restaurant. "But the remaining work is on too large a scale to be supported from our traditional sources and must be supplemented from the private sector."
The Florence is scheduled to reopen as a thirty-two-room hotel in 1982. Most ambitious of all, however, are Historic Pullman's plans for North Pullman, fourteen blocks originally containing housing for some six hundred workers. The area was developed, beginning in 1882, to accompany an expansion of the factory. Although it is part of both the national and state historic landmark districts, North Pullman has never drawn much attention. Unlike the southern section, which is a white ethnic enclave, North Pullman is mostly black and has long languished as what a visiting reporter called an "island apart, a forgotten urban orphan."
North Pullman is an orphan no more. It has been adopted by Historic Pullman and private developers (including architect Mike Shymanski, Pat Shymanski's husband, a six-term past president of the foundation). Housing has priority in North Pullman. Two abandoned factories will be converted into four hundred loft apartments and condominiums, and eighteen original Pullman houses will be rehabilitated and then resold. Those and other phases of the North Pullman project are expected to cost about $20 million all told; the housing rehabilitation has attracted grants and loans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Our intention is to reverse the trend of abandonment in North Pullman," explains Pat Shymanski, who is working with North Pullmanites to form their own civic organization. "We hope to attract other stable people to the area and turn the district around."
In both North and South Pullman, historic preservation is seen as a means to a broader end of community preservation. "This isn't a tourist attraction," says Mrs. Shymanski. "The restoration work we have done is for the people who live here." Indeed, the success of present-day Pullman, built atop the failures of the original, is best measured not by the look of the restored buildings, but by the quality of the lives that are lived in them. ●