Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pullman State Historical Site and Hotel Florence

I was not intending to go to the Pullman State Historical Site Friday morning for the LACONI tour. When invitations were sent out, I knew we would be short staffed at the library, and I could not count on attending. When Friday came, it was not even on my mind. I was home, scheduled to work the weekend, but I had a book to write and gardening to do and a rain barrel sitting in the garage needing installation. It had been raining, however, so two of three tasks were off my list. Bonnie said I should come, and I at first resisted, but then I agreed. I am glad that I agreed.

Just before 10 a.m. a dozen plus librarians met at the front of the old Hotel Florence, built in 1881 by railroad car manufacturer George Pullman for visitors to Pullman, the village that he built for the employees of his factory twelve miles south of downtown Chicago. Our objective was a tour of the hotel, where we would see the historic site's library and archives, and then a walking tour of the neighborhood. Our leader for the tour was site curator Linda Bullen, a preservationist and a Pullman homeowner who knows much of what there is to know about the area. She and a couple of other site staff told us the histories of the factory, the town, and the hotel, as well as about the efforts to preserve the buildings and collect the town history. Along with presentations, we were allowed to wander the first floor to get a better feel for the place.

The hotel looks really good on the outside, but work on the inside is just beginning. The foundation has been shored, and the roof has new slate, so the building is mostly protected from the elements, except heat and cold. It still needs central air for the first floor and other climate work to make upper floors habitable. Tin ceilings are being removed. Linoleum has been stripped away to show tile that has worn down. Rooms are mostly empty. Still the space of the first floor suggests comfort of a bygone era, and I hope to someday see the results of restoration. On the second floor, we saw first class hotel rooms and furniture for several classes. Most of the rooms were surprising small and the furniture plain. Everything was well made but nothing was luxurious. The Hotel Florence was mostly a place of business.

The library and archives on the second floor are unlike most associated with historic sites. There is no budget, so work is accomplished by the curator and volunteers, and the collection has come from donations, including bequests from companies that had old Pullman records. Some items came from Pullman residents who had private document/artifact collections. The collection is spread across a few rooms that have been heated/cooled. What is really remarkable is that many of the items are being digitized and put on the archive website. The curator said that access at the historic site is by appointment only, but many of the researchers have found what they wanted was already on the website.

What is also remarkable is that the historic site, which is still on the officially closed list in a state with little money for its parks and monuments, runs programs and festivals throughout the year with (again) no budget. This is accomplished by seeking partners and sponsors and volunteers.

After seeing the hotel, the curator led us around the community, showing us where to imagine a lake, a sprawling factory, and an arcade building. I particularly wish I could have seen the arcade, which burned down in the (I think) 1920s, as it had Victorian era shops and a large theater. We did get to see from the outside the original stables, the Greenstone church, and the shell of what was Market Hall. While many of the major buildings have not fared well, the houses mostly remain intact. According to the site brochure, 98 percent of the residences survive. Most look well preserved. Laws now protect the facades, but the interiors may be modified. The one that we toured had been made very comfortable and modern.

Our tour lasted a full two and a half hours, but I would have gladly continued for a couple more. I see why people become Pullman fanatics, giving their time and money to work for the community's survival. Places that essentially look as they did in the 1880s are very rare. How the state and community organizations will ever get the funding to complete the job of restoring the hotel is a mystery, but so much has already been done to keep the community alive. People who enjoy visiting historical sites should consider stopping in Pullman.

1 comment:

adgorn said...

You know Benezette Williams, WS resident and architect of our Water Tower, designed the water and sewer system for Pullman. See the documents posted on

Alan Gornik
Western Springs Historical Society