7 nov 16  | Chicago Tribune

Planning an ambitious future for Pullman

by Steve Johnson

Possibly in 2018, the Chicago Humanities Festival session on the past, present and future of the freshly minted Pullman National Monument could actually happen in a Pullman Historic District structure.

That's when partial restoration of the district's central clock tower building should be ready so that it can begin hosting visitors, said Lynn McClure, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Full restoration of the building, the only part of the historic Pullman site actually owned by the National Park Service, is expected the following year. It will become the official visitor center.

But because McClure was speaking on a Sunday morning in 2016, she and her panelists and audience members met at a theater on South Michigan Avenue.

What was outlined was an ambitious vision for Pullman. President Obama designated it a National Monument in February 2015, the culmination of years of work by preservationists, historians and especially community members.

Already, things are happening for Pullman that can turn it from a half-day destination to a full day and even possibly a two- or three-day visit, said Chicago architect Richard Wilson, who helped lead Positioning Pullman, an ideas workshop for the monument convened by the Driehaus Foundation in the spring of 2015 (the workshop's "ideas book" is at http://www.positioningpullman.org).

There's a new Metra station. The nearby Big Marsh Bike Park officially opened Sunday, and "the first superintendent of the Pullman National Monument started this week," McClure said. Bus lines have been extended to better serve Pullman, and the extension of the Red Line will bring even more public transit service, said panelist Mark Bouman, who guides Chicago conservation and cultural heritage work at the Field Museum.

To be sure, there are plenty of challenges, too, beginning with trying to fit a destination for perhaps 300,000 annual visitors into an existing neighborhood. Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park near San Francisco and Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts were mentioned as having some elements in common.

The cash-strapped state of Illinois owns the partly restored Florence Hotel on the site, and there are hopes that it can become a boutique hotel, said Wilson. But again: Illinois owns the Florence.

Also, the model factory town built by rail car magnate George Pullman beginning in 1880 was significant for many reasons: as a demonstration of effective urban planning, as an early harbinger of suburbanization, as a significant site in industrial and labor history and in the 20th century American battle to maintain, rather than tear down, such spots.

But possibly its greatest American resonance comes from the association with the Pullman railroad car porters, the largest group of African-American workers in the U.S. in the early 20th century, the first to be recognized as a union and a kick-starter for the Great Migration and the civil rights movement.

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum is in the Pullman district, but Randolph's work organizing and guiding the union was done largely out of Harlem, in New York City, McClure said, which presents challenges to the Chicago site.

"An opportunity we need to work on is elevating that Pullman Porter story," Wilson said, calling it "this amazing African-American heritage story."

One thing has been constant in the recent Pullman work. There is no shortage of willing helpers. When planning the Positioning Pullman conference, "everyone we called instantly, without hesitation, agreed to participate," Wilson said.