April 19, 2016

Pullman Historic District: A "Town that Changed America"

PBS host Geoffrey Baer discusses the National Treasure

In the third installment of PBS’s “10 That Changed America” set to air tonight, host Geoffrey Baer explores National Treasure Pullman, Illinois as one of the “10 Towns That Changed America.” We caught up with the Chicago native about what viewers can expect from the next episode and what makes Pullman so unique.

Geoffrey Baer at Pullman National Park

photo by: WTTW

Baer visits Pullman.

How will this episode differ from others in the series?

We’re looking at a sweeping history of urban planning from America’s oldest European town, which is Saint Augustine, Florida, all the way through the most current ideas in planning, which is the transit-oriented design of the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon. [We are] looking at how we’ve tried to design ideal towns that are just right for America, from the very first town that was ever planted here. And I think the thing that’s so interesting about this episode is that we keep coming up with different ideas about what we think is the “right” way for Americans to live and in some cases they turn out to be exactly the wrong way for Americans to live.

What makes Pullman so interesting?

It’s interesting on so many levels. It’s interesting to go there now and try to imagine what it was like in George Pullman’s day because in some ways a lot of it is still there. The worker and executive housing is still there. But you don’t realize it at first, you just think you’re on another block of the city of Chicago because Chicago has expanded all the way south and engulfed what was at one time this town that was way south of Chicago and was self-contained.

At first you might not even register that you’re in this different place. So it’s fun to deconstruct that. Then you go around corners and suddenly come upon things that are unlike anything you ever see in Chicago—for example, Market Square. It’s where the market was and it’s different than anything you’d see in Chicago. It’s almost an outdoor room; it’s surrounded on all four sides by housing and you can go all the way around it on a square drive which you almost never see in Chicago. So you come around the corner and you realize you’re in a very different [place]. Then you start to imagine what was there before.

“Thanks to the National Monument status, the word is out to a whole new set of visitors who come to learn more about the big part this little area has played in labor, race, and transportation history. ”

Lorraine Brochu, President of the Pullman Civic Organization

Are there major differences from the original construction?

For example, what was a proto-shopping mall [has] been torn down and it’s a landscaped piece of land, but it used to have a commercial building on it. The trains used to run at grade and now the train passes by on an embankment, so you’ve got to sort of imagine the train pulling into the station at grade level.

And then of course the factory itself which is a partial ruin and partially it’s been rebuilt after a devastating fire. You can squint your eyes and kind of try to imagine what it was like in Pullman's day. Of course the other thing is the gigantic eight-lane interstate highway has now separated the town of Pullman from Lake Calumet which was all integrated as one big concept in Pullman’s day.

What makes Pullman a “Town that Changed America?”

I think for one thing, from a TV standpoint [it’s an] incredibly dramatic story, the story of the rise and fall of Pullman and, with him, this town. It’s important for sociological reasons in addition to urban planning reasons. It’s got a tremendous importance in African-American history. It’s tremendously important in labor history with the Pullman strikes which are at the very heart of our story. Because of the Pullman strikes, it spelled the end of company towns in America; laws were passed after Pullman that made it [illegal] for a company to own the factory and pay the workers and also own the housing that the workers lived in and charge them rent.

“Pullman tells so many important and interesting stories—about the Pullman Porters’ struggle for equality and their role in the Civil Rights movement, and the lasting power of good urban design.”

Jennifer Sandy, National Treasure project manager for Pullman Historic District

And from the urban planning perspective?

Just from a planning standpoint it is remarkable in the sense that there are so many what today would be considered sustainable features. Pullman was just trying to maximize profit and eliminate waste but, for example, what do you do with all the sewage from a town? Well the sewage was piped three-five miles away and used as fertilizer at a farm which in turn grew produce that was taken back and sold in the stores in Pullman.

It [was] going to be a beautiful brick community, where do you get the bricks? They were dredging the lake anyway [and] they were dredging up a lot of clay and some of that was used for bricks in the community. There was a famous Corliss steam engine that powered the factory; that steam engine produced a lot of excess heat and that heat was piped down into pipes and used, to some degree, to heat the homes. So it was all a way to save money and be efficient of course, but today we would think of it as sustainability. That is significant too.

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

URGENT: Contact your Senators asking them to pass the Route 66 National Historic Trail Designation Act before 2019!

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