Walking through time in the Pullman Historic District

Pullman Historic District residential street in Chicago's Southland area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)It doesn’t always work out as expected, but there is something compelling about trying to build a Utopian community; one that has an answer for most or all of the problems inherent in housing and supporting groups of human beings.

A combination of thoughtful design and consideration of basic requirements like food, water, health care, education, transportation, etc. are the hallmarks of such projects.

The remnants of many in the US survive today – the Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, the Amana Colonies in Iowa, the Oneida community in New York and the Harmony Historic District in Pennsylvania. I get a little Utopian/New Urbanism buzz every time I drive through Austin’s Mueller complex – a former municipal airport turned into a planned community with many amenities and thoughtful design to make it as livable as possible.

South of Chicago, Illinois, George Pullman of the Pullman Palace [Railroad] Car Company wanted to build a model industrial town for his thousands of employees.  In less than four years (by 1884) over 1,000 homes and public buildings had sprung to life in 4,000 acres next to Lake Calumet.  In 1896 it was named “world’s most perfect town” at the Prague International Hygienic and Pharmaceutical Exposition (an odd place to win an urban planning prize, but no matter….)

Pullman Historic District mural in Chicago's Southland area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The dream came crashing down for a variety of reasons, mostly that Pullman insisted on charging his employees the same amounts for housing even as he cut their wages because of the 1893 economic crash. Anger and frustration resulted in the infamous 1894 Pullman railroad strike and riots.

Today, what makes the Pullman Historic District different from other historic Utopian places is that, although the Pullman business is defunct, the community itself lives on. Hundreds of people still live in those carefully planned homes. You can buy one if you want to, and at pretty good prices these days because the ongoing real estate mess and foreclosures have hit Pullman just like everywhere else.

In a walking tour of the Pullman District led by tour guides who live there, here are some of the places we saw:

A pair of front porches in the Pullman Historic District, Chicago's Southland area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are homeowner codes for the houses to insure historic accuracy, especially in the front, but they are not so draconian that this owner wasn’t able to have a purple stairway to heaven….

Beekeeping in a Pullman Historic District backyard, Chicago's Southland area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

This house had a discreet “Honey for Sale” sign in the front window, and I loved the tidy little bee houses in back.

The Hotel Florence currently under renovation in the Pullman Historic District, Chicago's Southland area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

This is the Hotel Florence, a swank lodging confection named for Pullman’s daughter, Florence. It had the only bar in the town, and only visitors could drink there. Its renovation is being funded by the state of Illinois as part of the Pullman State Historic Site; I’d love to stay there when it’s finished (hopefully they’ll re-open the bar.)

Original Steere and Turner organ in the Greenstone Church, Pullman Historic District, Chicago's Southland area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The 1882 Steere and Turner “Opus #170” manual tracker organ (1,260 pipes of all sizes) in the District’s Greenstone Church. Players must wear ballet slippers to protect the pedals.

Disclosure: I was hosted on this visit by the Chicago Southland CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) which covered my fee to take the walking tour. Special thanks to CVB staff member Scott Bort, who ruthlessly kept us to a tight schedule so that I could see as much as possible during a short visit. I raise a Flossmoor Pullman Brown Ale to him!

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  1. Emma May 11, 2012
  2. Sheila Scarborough May 18, 2012

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