The restoration of Chicago’s former Pullman Company Town commemorates a pivotal site of progressive American labor

Green Labor

The restoration of Chicago’s former Pullman Company Town commemorates a pivotal site of progressive American labor

Site Design Group transformed the former railcar tracks into elements of a new landscape. (Scott Shigley/Courtesy Site Design Group)

When Andrea Terry, a principal at the Chicago architecture firm Bauer Latoza Studio began working on the renovation of the Pullman Administration Clock Tower Building in 2017, it had no floor, lots of racoons, and trees growing inside. “It was in a terribly sad state,” she said, a tragic near denouement for one of the city’s most historic buildings, in one of its most historic neighborhoods.

The area known as Pullman on Chicago’s far South Side was established by the industrialist George Pullman in the late 19th century. The sprawling company town he built there witnessed major events in the histories of labor (the bloody 1894 Pullman strike, which launched a period of labor militancy in America) and civil rights (it was home to the Pullman Porters, the first Black union to be recognized by a major American corporation). The company, which for much of its history produced luxury rail cars, was completely shuttered in the 1980s, and “for decades [it] was treated like some South Side thing we didn’t have to think too hard about,” Terry said.

In 2015, President Obama made the 12-acre site a national monument, promising federal dollars for staff and maintenance. But it was the National Park Foundation that raised the funds for the restoration work—more than $10 million to date.

A group of people on a walking path
(Scott Shigley/Courtesy Site Design Group)

The Clock Tower Building was rebuilt from the inside, with capacity for a visitors’ center and museum exhibits, and the grounds were transformed into an urban park. Fittingly, the Pullman National Monument celebrated its opening Labor Day weekend. “It’s been a pinnacle of my career to see something come from that place to where it is now,” said Terry. “It’s touching so many different parts of everyday life that it can’t help but be a great thing.”

In 1971, the former company town was designated a national landmark to save its key structures from demolition. Pullman selected the architect Solon S. Beaman to build the red brick, Queen Anne–style row houses and hotel, which were set in parklike environs designed by the landscape architect Nathan Barrett. With its iconic clock tower, the 1880 administrative building was Beaman’s grandest creation, but few of his working drawings and other documents have survived. When Terry became involved, the building was a hollow shell of itself, having suffered a fire in the late 1990s—even though a 2005 project guaranteed its continued existence. “We worked on some of the re-creation components with basically two photographs,” she recalled.

An action plan developed by a coalition of professional planning and neighborhood organizations, including design help from big-time Chicago firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, charted a course for Pullman’s renewal. Bauer Latoza integrated the ruins of arched bays to the south of the Clock Tower Building into a broad civic plaza that preserves the footprint of long-destroyed workshops. The museum exhibit inside not only foregrounds the figure of Pullman, but also that of firebrand union leader Eugene V. Debs, who organized the Pullman strike, which was violently put down by the National Guard. Among the exhibit displays, by the Fairfax, Virginia–based firm Design Minds, is a sumptuously ornate interior wood-paneled model of a Pullman car. Further on, pulley wheels and levers, paragons of 19th-century mechanization once accustomed to incredibly heavy loads, hold up signage.

Outside, the landscape, designed by Chicago’s Site Design Group, is ordered along a strong, axial plan. As conveyed by interpretive plaques, this north-south axis was the path that workers and the product of their labor traversed each day. They shuffled along the transfer pit tracks at sunrise and again when the closing whistle blew, closely monitored by security personnel hired by Pullman. It was also here that they brought machinery to a shuddering halt and clashed with federal troops.

People gathered in front of a sign reading Pullman
The National Pullman Monument opened this past Labor Day weekend. (Scott Shigley/Courtesy Site Design Group)

The centerpiece is transfer pit tracks once used to slide segments of railcars from workstation to workstation. The designers reassembled the tracks and recessed them slightly below grade. They wove clutches of asters and goldenrods between bands of pavers and richly rusted rails and introduced bees and other pollinators. “The transfer pit was always about efficiency and high performance, so that’s why we wanted to go with native pollinators,” said Site Design Group studio director Rob Reuland. The result is a picture of mechanized order that’s literally, well, buzzing with activity, albeit at a lower volume than during Pullman’s reign.

One major aim of the action plan was to reverse a trajectory of alienation that had pitted the company town against the surrounding neighborhood. When it first opened, the campus was ringed by low walls and shrubs, but by the mid-1880s, the periphery resembled a militarized checkpoint. (Pullman erected a guardhouse and staffed the entry points with police.) By the 1890s, iron fences and masonry walls had sprung up in likely response to increasing labor unrest.

Site Design Group brought down the walls and fences. Furthermore, they established a network of heritage trails that crisscross the site. Unlike the majority of National Park Service properties, which are often isolated or carefully circumscribed by fences, Reuland said he wanted Pullman to be as “porous as possible.” This is only right; after all, it was mainly neighbors who for years struggled to get the historic property back into a condition befitting its importance. “There’s a high level of ownership of it,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it felt like a neighborhood park to neighbors when they walked through.”