20 feb 20 | Chicago Tribune

Five years after monument designation, Pullman finally has the money to fulfill park’s potential

By Morgan Greene

Five years ago, then-President Barack Obama designated the historic Pullman neighborhood a national monument. Now supporters say they finally have the money to bring more of their restoration plans to life.

More than $34 million in public and private funds has been raised for the renovation of the clock tower building and factory grounds, and the final two phases of construction have begun. Last month, the National Park Service announced the award of a $5.8 million contract to minority-owned Griggs Mitchell & Alma of Illinois to stabilize the tower building and develop the visitors center.

Longtime supporters and National Park Service officials gathered Wednesday afternoon in the Hotel Florence to mark some movement in the revival of George Pullman’s namesake town on the Far South Side.

“The designation (as a national monument) was important to reflect the rich history, but President Obama is also interested in making sure that our monuments tell a story and a story that has not ended,” said former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett via video. “Really a story that is historic, but whose best chapter lies ahead.”

The visitors center is expected to open in spring 2021 to coincide with the completion of site improvements by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which owns surrounding grounds and buildings. Structural repairs on the tower building, which was nearly destroyed by arson in 1998, have been completed, and interior work on the visitors center will begin later this year, according to officials.

The visitors center will house stories of Pullman’s legacy, offering exhibits on events such as the 1894 strike and landmark unionization and labor victory of the African-American Pullman porters. It will serve as a place where visitors can map out a visit, get a National Park Service passport stamp and see a restored luxury sleeping car once owned by Robert Todd Lincoln.

Other projects still to be completed include the renovation of Pullman and Arcade parks, the repair of buildings such as Greenstone Church and the opening of Hotel Florence, originally an extravagant Queen Anne-style inn built to host businessmen and dignitaries.
Built in the 1880s, Pullman was created as an industrial hub and meticulously planned community. For workers of the Pullman Palace Car Co., there were row houses and Romanesque architecture, a church, even a theater. The yard eventually shut down in the late 1960s; Ryerson Steel’s exodus in 2006 stripped away more jobs. But for decades, supporters worked to see the town recovered and remembered.

“Thirty years ago back in the rearview mirror, people were writing off Pullman. Saying its best days were behind it, it was an antique, antiquated, fallen apart, pieces were coming undone,” former Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at the Wednesday event. “You all never gave in.”

But once the site was designated a national monument, progress stalled.

In 2018, the Tribune reported the National Park Foundation had raised $8 million toward its $13 million goal to build the visitors center. Work was expected to begin the following year.

But industrial waste needed to be cleaned up, and between a lack of state and federal funding, several federal government shutdowns and a state budget standoff, work was delayed. Even a housing development for artists was paused after debates bubbled over historical preservation and land ownership.

That development, Artspace Lofts, opened in late 2019. A food hall with local vendors opened down the street from the clock tower and the Pullman Community Center sports and education complex opened in 2018.

Designs for the site include a Pullman yard sign, reconstruction of the workers gate and restoration of the sprawling factory grounds. Architect Richard Wilson, of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, said they want to make it a “true people’s place,” like it once was.

Metra has increased service at 111th Street, the CTA has extended its Cottage Grove Avenue bus from downtown to 115th Street and the Chicago Department of Transportation has created a bike lane near 111th Street, according to Positioning Pullman 2.0, a planning blueprint developed by community members and experts.

More than $56 million in public and private funding has been invested in the monument in total in the last five years, according to nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.

New Superintendent Teri Gage, who will start in the spring, said she plans to bring her background in commercial services and economic development to Pullman’s next chapter. Gage was previously the chief of business services at the remote Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin.

Gage said she has been impressed by the architecture during her visits to the area. “But what is even more impressive is how passionate people are,” she said.

About 35,000 to 40,000 visits have been made to the monument annually, according to Lynn McClure, senior director of National Parks Conservation Association. But 300,000 visitors are expected once the high-priority historic buildings, such as the visitors center, are open to the public.

“Five years ago, if you had asked anybody what is going to be happening in Pullman in five years, nobody could have projected this kind of commitment and response,” McClure said.

On Wednesday at Hotel Florence, there was only a rail car painted on a cake. Although the hotel is a stretch from the resplendent hideaway it once was, the stained-glass windows and empty check-in still hint at what it could become.

“Yes, the grand opening (of the visitors center) is really exciting and a lot of time and energy is going to go into that," Gage said. “But it’s being able to open the doors and let the public in so they can experience their national park.”