The Pullman Historic District in Chicago has been declared a national monument by President Obama, who returned to his hometown on February 19 to deliver the announcement. ULI Chicago members as well as state and local officials hailed the designation as a turning point for the site, home to the long-shuttered Pullman Palace Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad cars and the largest employer of African Americans in Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Pullman was considered one of America’s first company towns. Founded in 1880 by company owner George Pullman, the town included a new plant, employee housing, a shopping district, church, theaters, parks, and a hotel. When business fell off in 1894, George Pullman cut jobs, wages, and working hours, but not rents or prices in his town, leading to the violent Pullman strike, which was broken up by federal troops. In 1889, the town was annexed by Chicago, and in 1898 the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town.
With the dissolution of the Pullman Palace Car Company in the 1960s, the neighborhood entered an era of decline before restoration of its historic housing stock began. Although Pullman was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, the state has been largely responsible for maintaining the site.
In 2011, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) asked ULI Chicago to evaluate how Pullman’s historic structures could be reactivated for educational or cultural purposes and returned to active public use. The IHPA, which has spent nearly $26 million in state and federal funds to repair two of the site’s major structures—the factory complex and the Queen Anne–style Hotel Florence—expressed the need to enlist private and philanthropic partners to stabilize the buildings and justify any further public spending on the site.
A ULI Technical Advisory Program (TAP) panel convened to evaluate the site identified the Pullman District’s major problem: lack of a single fiscal and organizational sponsor to implement a large-scale vision for the neighborhood. Grass-roots community groups had been vocal and engaged, but they lacked resources and were unable to agree on a path forward. The groups held outsized ambitions for what the site could be—including a potential site for the Obama Presidential Library—compared with the financing and human capital at their disposal, according to the panel.
Now that the site will be overseen and managed by the National Park Service as the Pullman National Monument, Pullman could be a step closer to attracting the private investment necessary to shore up preservation and redevelopment efforts, TAP panel members say.
“The [national monument] designation doesn’t solve everybody’s problem, but it puts in place a national sponsor that will provide long-term stewardship and access to funding” through public/private partnerships and grants, says panel chair Mike Szkatulski, managing director of Chicago-based rmc international, a real estate consulting firm.
The TAP panel evaluated the site’s potential for redevelopment with an eye toward capitalizing on Pullman’s historical significance and the catalytic investments occurring nearby. These include the Pullman Park mixed-use retail and industrial development, which includes a new Walmart, a Method Products factory producing biodegradable personal-care products and household cleaners, affordable housing at the Pullman Wheelworks apartments, and a new health clinic for underserved families.
The panel concluded that revitalization of the Pullman District must focus on a broader economic development strategy for the entire neighborhood. That involves attracting new investors, tourists, and residents rather than just preserving Pullman’s cultural and historic artifacts for posterity or to satisfy current constituencies.
Panelist Diane Williams, a director of Business Districts Inc., says the national monument designation will bring visibility to Pullman as a place that honors its past while keeping its eyes on the future. Pullman needs a clear economic development strategy to stay true to its roots as an economic hub where families prospered, she says.
“Part of honoring Pullman is really respecting that this was the real story of the neighborhood,” she says. “There has to be a common vision here, and the national monument designation can begin to bring just that. Just having that kind of common vision can help attract a player or multiple players that can really look to long-term investment in the area.”