August 29, 2014

This Labor Day, Celebrate Chicago's Pullman Historic District

Founded in 1880, Pullman was America’s first planned community. Credit: Cynthia Lynn
Founded in 1880, Pullman was America’s first planned model industrial community.

Labor Day: one last chance for beach vacations, barbecues, and making the most of summer’s warm weather before the autumn chill sets in. What many Americans probably don’t realize, however, is that the origins of this holiday weren’t nearly as idyllic.

As it so happens, the roots of Labor Day are closely tied to one of our National Treasures, Chicago’s Pullman National Historic District.

Pullman, the first planned model industrial community in America’s history, was founded as a company town in 1880 to house workers in industrialist George Pullman’s factory, which produced the famous Pullman Palace luxury rail cars. A bloody 1894 strike pitted workers against the company after Pullman cut wages and laid off employees without lowering rents. The conflict resulted in dozens of deaths, the shutdown of rail traffic across much of the country, the intervention of the U.S. Army, and, ultimately, the dissolution of Pullman as a company town.

Legislation for a national Labor Day holiday passed unanimously in Congress on June 28, 1894. While the movement for a national Labor Day holiday had been growing for some time, starting in September 1892 with a New York union workers’ strike in which workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday, the Pullman conflict brought the issue to a head. President Grover Cleveland, concerned that the public would view him as anti-labor following his crackdown on the strike, hoped that the holiday would appease workers, both in Pullman and across the country.

Now, a push to officially designate Pullman as a National Park is generating passion in the historic district once again -- but this time, advocates hope, with a more positive outcome. While a bill has been introduced in Congress to officially make the site part of the National Park system, many Chicagoans hope that President Obama can use the authority granted to him through the Antiquities Act to make the designation happen more quickly.

Brick row houses originally housed factory workers in Pullman. Credit: Cynthia Lynn
Brick row houses originally housed factory workers in Pullman.

On August 21, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, together with the National Park Service, held a public meeting to rally support for Pullman’s designation as the nation’s 402nd National Park. Over 350 people filled a room in the site’s factory complex, chanting “402! 402!” and carrying buttons and homemade signs showing their enthusiasm. Speakers included U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, Illinois Historic Preservation Director Amy Martin, and Chicago Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Andrew Mooney.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who paid a surprise visit to the gathering, told the crowd that National Park status would be the ribbon around the package of a Pullman neighborhood that is on the rise, and expressed his full support for the project.

“I think the meeting exceeded our expectations,” said Catherine Shannon, deputy director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. While efforts to preserve and promote Pullman have been ongoing for decades with strong community leadership, Shannon and others at the IHPA have been working for Pullman’s recognition as part of the National Park system for about two years.

Advocates hope that the Pullman Historic Site will be granted National Park status in the near future. Credit: Cynthia Lynn
Advocates hope that the Pullman Historic Site will be granted National Park status in the near future.

“The overwhelming show of community support for a National Park at the public meeting was inspiring,” says Jennifer Sandy, a senior officer in the National Trust’s Chicago field office. “People brought homemade signs, chanted and clapped, and even gave a few standing ovations.”

National Park designation would have countless benefits for the historic district and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of Pullman’s original structures are still standing, including the Queen Anne-style red brick factory and administration buildings, the picturesque Hotel Florence, and some of the worker housing. A study commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association estimated that Pullman, as a National Park, could attract 300,000 visitors each year and create 365 new jobs, providing $40 million annually to the community.

Shannon stresses that so many unique facets of America’s story can be told through Pullman, including African-American history (connected to Pullman’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American-led labor union,) labor history, and industrial railroad history.

“There are so many themes, and some things that aren’t told anywhere else,” she says. “We get tens of thousands of visitors [to Pullman,] but we could get hundreds of thousands. We can all put our resources and staff together and make it the dynamic site that it should be.”

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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