After standing idle over the Pullman community for decades, the former Pullman Company’s Clock Tower & Administration Building is ready to begin its new life and career as the visitor center for the Pullman National Monument. The overhauled and reimagined building will open to the public this Labor Day weekend, with celebrations starting at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 4.
The ongoing preservation, and plans for the renovation of the historic building, became increasingly crucial after the late ‘90s when it was severely damaged by a fire. However, a proclamation by President Obama in 2015 paved the way to National Monument status and stewardship by the National Park Service. The Victorian-era factory town played a pivotal role in U.S. labor and civil rights history, and this background is displayed and explored through installations at the new visitor center.
Teri Gage is the park superintendent for Pullman National Monument, Chicago’s first and only national park, and says that there were a lot of moving parks and stakeholders involved in the $35 million effort to renovate the clock tower building and its 12-acre grounds.
“The land here is owned by the Pullman State Historic Site, which is under the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but the clock tower building is owned by the National Park Service,” she explains. “Construction started about 17 months ago and it hasn’t really been occupied at all since 1958 when Pullman left.”
But the new visitor center will have both a symbolic and tangible impact on the community, not only as a sign of new investment and rebirth, but also in fostering Pullman and the far south side of Chicago as a destination for tourism and educational programming. Gage says that the National Park Service estimates that when the site is fully redeveloped, the park could expect upwards of 300,000 visitors each year.
As of now, the 10,000-square-foot first floor of the visitor center is completed and ready for its debut, but there’s still a 10,000-square-foot second floor, the sprawling erecting shop wing off the side of the building and the shell of the rear erecting shops which will also be built-out at some time in the future. Gage says it’s still to be determined how these spaces will be used.
“Immediately following the grand opening, the visitor center is going to be open seven days a week,” Gage says. “And we will offer tours, both in the building and on the factory site, as staffing allows us to do we are going to be reliant on some volunteer staffing to be able to do some of those extra programs.”
Gage says her team currently consists of eight full-time National Park Service staff, but encourages anyone with an interest in the national monument to consider volunteering for tours and programming.
Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI), which has been involved in virtually all of the new industrial and retail development in Pullman over the last decade, served as the site developer, coordinating with the lead stakeholders — the State of Illinois, National Park Service, National Park Foundation, and the Historic Pullman Foundation — to oversee the construction of the project and coordination among contractors.
David Doig, the President of CNI, says that there will also be new jobs and an increased economic output from the Pullman community, referencing a 2013 report conducted by the City of Chicago and CNI, which suggests that a national park presence in Pullman could help support the creation of 300 new jobs and over $40 million in annual economic impact for the neighborhood after the first decade.
“I think the message is that this is just the start,” Doig says of the completion of the first phase of the national monument site. “We get the visitor center, but there’s still more to come. We need to build momentum around increasing visitorship, creating more attractions, and creating more assets for the community.”
Doig’s team coordinated closely with Bauer Latoza Studio, who handled design work, and construction general contractor GMA Construction Group, who performed the renovation of the historic structure and built-out the new visitor center space on the building’s first floor.
Performing the work on such a significant building had its challenges, GMA President and CEO Cornelius Griggs, says. From fine details such as matching the existing brick color to more intensive jobs like rearranging load-bearing steel supports to open up the space, the construction team had to overcome numerous obstacles for the overhaul.
But beyond the technical aspects of the renovation, taking on the job was a professional and personal highlight, Griggs adds.
“It was a personal passion for me, as an African American contractor in the city of Chicago, in being able to put my company’s name and my name on the revitalization of the Pullman National Monument and what that means to my heritage, our culture, and to the Pullman Porters,” he explains. “For me, it’s the highlight of my career thus far, so I’m extremely excited about it, and can’t wait to see the grand opening.”
This article also appears in the October 2021 issue of Illinois Real Estate Journal.