Administration building, Pullman, Ill.
Samuel A. Love/Flickr via Creative Commons license Administration building, Pullman, Ill.

What does architecture embody? How does it speak to us of history? That is the question raised by the recent designation of Pullman, Ill., as a national park. The town of Pullman started in 1880 as one of the most thoroughly designed company towns ever constructed. It became a symbol of paternalism, especially after the 1894 strike of Pullman workers that led to some of the worst violence in U.S. labor history. After the courts forced the Pullman Company to divest the town in 1898, it became just another Chicago neighborhood dependent on disappearing manufacturing jobs. Now President Barack Obama has proclaimed it a National Park, preserving the site into perpetuity. “This site is at the heart of what would become America's labor movement—and, as a consequence, at the heart of what would become America's middle class," President Obama said in a speech at the designation ceremony.

I am glad that the town—a collection of red brick structures designed by Solon Beman with a keen eye to translating a variety of not only uses, but also of social classes, into distinct, but related forms—is being preserved, but I am bothered by the fact that there is little recognition that the place is a monument to oppression and violence, not just to urban planning with coherence and a certain measure of benevolence. The place, quite simply, looks too good.

Railroad car magnate George Pullman envisioned the company town as completely his, from the land it sat on to the very material out of which it was made: He purchased the tract for both his factory and the town, used local clay to make the bricks, and had most of the accoutrements made in his shops. Then he forced his workers to live there, charged them rent, and had them shop in his company store. His aim was to make a profit for his company while keeping his workers under control.

The architecture reflects his desires. Laid out in ample neighborhoods with a great deal of open space, the town removed workers from the crowded slums in which they had lived, thus making them, or so Pullman hoped, happier, but also easier to see and segregate. Where they lived depended on their status, with the poorest workers (who were well-paid by contemporary standards) relegated to row-houses, more skilled workers having semi-detached homes, and managers living in mansions near the factory gate, so that they would never have to cross into the workers’ areas.

Hotel Florence, Pullman, Ill.
Richie Diesterheft/Flickr via Creative Commons license Hotel Florence, Pullman, Ill.

The decoration also became fancier and more of it appeared as you moved up the social ladder, but Beman made sure that there was something to relieve every brick surface and to differentiate major corners. The company store and other monuments, such as the Hotel Florence, anchored the composition.

Pullman mural.
Samuel A. Love/Flickr via Creative Commons license Pullman mural.

For a while, it all worked. Pullman made a profit, the workers enjoyed relatively sanitary and spacious accommodations, even at a price, and work continued. Then the economic recession of 1894 led Pullman to lay off hundreds of workers and push others to piecework. They revolted, and went on strike, but Pullman refused to budge. When the strike ended, Pullman had won, but at a cost: 30 dead strikers, $80 million in damage to his cars, nationwide disruption of the rails system, strike leader Eugene Debs in jail, near universal disapproval of Pullman’s actions, and an eventual court decision that his company had to divest itself of the town.

Former car building, Pullman, Ill.
Samuel A. Love/Flickr via Creative Commons license Former car building, Pullman, Ill.

Now the town is preserved in proverbial amber, popular among architectural historians and newly gentrifying, because we seem to believe that the original vision resulted in forms that are so beautiful that we should cherish and admire them. I am not all that enamored of the physical evidence, though the town is, without a doubt, of a piece. What bothers me more, however, is that it is a symbol of oppression as well as benevolence; of forced ways of living as well as new opportunity. It holds up the achievements of Pullman and his architect without much critical commentary.

If we are going to treat Pullman as a national treasure, we should value it for what it means, which is that it shows how architecture can, as Le Corbusier put it so aptly, avoid revolution—but only for a time, and only at the cost of sameness and controlled environments. Although President Obama and the politicians who have supported the designation claim they are doing so because of the town’s role in labor history, you will not see the blood, sweat, and tears of those workers in Pullman. You will only see the red brick prisons Pullman built for them. There will, no doubt, be a surfeit of text in the visitor center to explain all this, but the visual evidence is of neat, well-maintained buildings. 

It would be a great task for architects to figure out how to reverse that situation, but here’s the twist: Now that Pullman is a National Park, you can’t touch it. President Obama has enshrined injustice, not labor history.