National Historic Landmark to National Monument

A group of about 10 people standing around President Obama sitting at a desk.
Mr. Obama signing the establishment of Pullman National Monument in 2015.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The model factory town of Pullman in Chicago, Illinois, was constructed between 1880 and 1884 for industrialist George Mortimer Pullman, for whom it was named, to manufacture railroad passenger cars and house workers and their families. The Pullman Historic District, already designated a National Historic Landmark on December 30, 1970, was proclaimed a National Monument on February 19, 2015, by former President Barack Obama. The Pullman Historic District is nationally significant based on its importance in architecture, landscape architecture, social/humanitarian history, and urban planning.

Pullman, considered the first planned industrial community in the United States, was a radical departure from the unhealthful, overcrowded working-class districts typical at the time. George Pullman engaged architect Solon Spencer Beman and landscape architect Nathan F. Barrett to plan the town and design its buildings and public spaces. Beman designed housing in the elegant Queen Anne style and included Romanesque arches for buildings that housed shops and services. Barrett broke up the monotony of the grid of streets with his landscape design.

Unified, orderly, and innovative in its design, the model town of Pullman, then an independent town south of Chicago’s city limits, became an internationally famous experiment and attracted visitors from far and wide. Many of Pullman’s handsome Queen Anne and Gothic style buildings remain.

The town also played a pivotal role in the history of the American labor movement. Although George Pullman’s goal was to cure the social ills of the day, the tight control he exercised over his workers helped spark one of the Nation’s most widespread and consequential labor strikes. The beauty, sanitation, and order George Pullman provided his workers and their families were not without cost. The Pullman Company owned every building and charged rents that would ensure a return on the company’s investment in building the town.

In 1893, the worst economic depression in American history prior to the Great Depression hit the county in general and the railroad industry in particular. Orders at the Pullman Company declined so the company lowered its workers’ wages but not the rents it charged those workers for company housing. In 1894 Pullman was the focal point of a violent strike that spread across the nation. It pitted the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, against the Pullman Company and prompted President Grover Cleveland to intervene with federal troops. This was the first time that provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act played a part in smashing the unions.

The Pullman Company would again be the focus of a nationally important labor event when, in 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an influential African American union founded by A. Philip Randolph, won a labor contract for Pullman porters from the company.

The Pullman Company leased its cars to railroads and directly employed the attendants – porters, waiters, and maids. At its founding, the company hired recently freed former house slaves as porters. The porters remained a group of exclusively African American men throughout the company’s history, playing a significant role in the rise of the African American middle class. By 1937, the Pullman Company had been the Nation’s largest employer of African Americans for over twenty years.

The 1937 contract was the first major labor agreement between a union led by African Americans and a corporation and is considered one of the most important markers since Reconstruction toward African American independence from racist paternalism. The agreement served as a model for other African American workers and significantly contributed to the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. The events and themes associated with the Pullman Company continue to resonate today as employers and workers still seek opportunities for better lives.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 10, 2015, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Alesha Cerny.

Last updated: June 18, 2018