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Pullman House Project Lets Visitors Explore Living Spaces Behind Industrial Powerhouse, From Workers’ Apartments To Pullman’s Estate

"You can talk about [Pullman's history], but to go into the spaces that people lived in is much more rewarding," a project organizer said.

Mike Shymanski, Historic Pullman Foundation president, poses for a portrait at the Historic Pullman Visitor Center, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave., on Feb. 7, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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PULLMAN — Historical tours of Pullman employees’ homes — recreated to reflect various periods in the company’s history — are set to launch this spring, giving a peek into the lives of the workers who built the Far South Side community into an industrial powerhouse.

The Pullman House Project is transforming the largest former residence in the community at 605 E. 111th St. into a welcome center for year-round tours.

The project will debut with tours of the Thomas Dunbar House, 641 E. 111th St., a 10-room home named after the company executive who lived there 1898-1906.

It will also feature Honeymoon Row, 11405-11 S. Champlain Ave., which recreates a three-room worker’s apartment from 1890, and a recreated shoe repair shop that once operated out of a garage.

“You can talk about things, but to go into the spaces that people lived in is much more rewarding,” said Mike Shymanski, a Pullman House Project organizer and former president of the Historic Pullman Foundation.

In the future, the project will expand to include two more Honeymoon Row apartments. One will show living conditions in the 1920s, “a rich period of stories, styles and production in the Pullman plants,” Shymanski said.

Another will reflect life during World War II, telling the stories of women who came to Pullman for work in the defense industry as the company produced airplane wings and small naval crafts, Shymanski said.

A worker’s row house and a home reflecting life during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 will also be completed in the months following the tour’s launch.

“There are many stories, many different skills, and also a lot of people who lived here that didn’t work for the company,” like teachers, doctors and dentists, Shymanski said. “Knowledgable tour guides will take you from these different types of dwelling units and share with you the stories of people living in Pullman.”

The exterior of George Pullman’s mansion, 1729 S. Prairie Ave. in the South Loop, as seen in 1902.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A photo of the George Pullman Mansion on display at the Historic Pullman Exhibit Hall, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave., on Feb. 7.

An ‘Incredible Level Of Craftsmanship’

As the Pullman House Project recreates the homes of various workers, the Historic Pullman Foundation also possess artifacts from the most extravagant Pullman-related house in Chicago: The namesake family’s long-demolished mansion on Prairie Avenue.

The Second Empire-style estate, 1729 S. Prairie Ave., was notable even among its neighboring homes in an exclusive district once known as “Millionaire’s Row.”

Completed in 1876, George and Hattie Pullman’s already massive home was expanded in 1892, ahead of their daughter Harriett’s wedding. The expansion and renovations cost more than $3 million in today’s dollars.

“What really strikes me every time is the incredible level of craftsmanship that went into it,” said William Tyre, executive director and curator at the Glessner House, kitty-corner to where the Pullman mansion stood. He’s also a historian on the Prairie Avenue district and a Pullman resident.

Ironically, for a home built with riches from the railroad industry, it was train traffic and industrialization that factored into the home’s downfall — as well as the district’s.

“You had all this smoke and noise from all the railroad traffic … the Levee District was expanding, and major manufacturing was moving into the area,” Shymanski said. “It’s unfortunate that things were such that the Pullman mansion didn’t have a market. The family decided, rather than having it be abused with some of the expansion of the Levee District, to demolish it.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A piece of white and gold leaf ornamentation from the George Pullman Mansion is on display at the Pullman Exhibit Hall, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave., on Feb. 7, 2022.

The mansion only survived 46 years. Hattie Pullman lived in the home until her death in 1921, after which most items and architectural features were sold off in a highly publicized auction. The building was demolished in 1922; the site is now home to modern townhouses and a condo tower.

In 1984, Shymanski was touring the unlit basement of the former Chicago Historical Society building at 632 N. Dearborn St. when he came across a stack of wooden artifacts.

Upon turning the pieces over, he discovered they were long-lost remnants from the Pullman mansion demolished six decades prior.

“To our surprise, written on the backside of the piece was ‘Pullman,’ the room that it was going in, its component number, as well as the job number that [design firm] Pottier and Stymus had given the Pullman interior project,” Shymanski said. “This was absolutely cool to see this. We made arrangements to acquire all these fragments, and they’re now in the collection of the Historic Pullman Foundation.”

“Well over 100” artifacts, from 12-foot-tall doorway casings to wooden crown moulding and an ornate dining room sideboard, are now in the foundation’s possession. Some are on display at the Pullman Exhibit Hall, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

Pullman House Project organizers also produced a 40-minute documentary, available on YouTube, sharing the history behind the Pullman mansion and the artifacts in their possession.

The foundation and project organizers “may decide to do something more elaborate with [the artifacts], like reassemble them as an entrance to a room or develop a wall with the cornice work,” Shymanski said. “There’s great potential there.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A piece of ornamentation from the George Pullman Mansion is on display at the Historic Pullman Visitor Center, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave., on Feb. 7, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A head crown of a doorway from the George Pullman Mansion is on display at the Pullman Exhibit Hall, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave., on Feb. 7, 2022.

Though the 1921 auction scattered the Pullmans’ artifacts across the world, the Pullman House Project secured numerous items linked to the family thanks to a Chicagoland resident with deep ties to the home.

Mary McGuinness Kozub’s great-grandmother, Margaret “Maggie” Barron Davis, came to the United States from Ireland when she was 14 and took a “menial position” in the mansion’s lower level.

Davis’ years of working at the Pullman mansion provided her with an income and a stable environment to raise her daughters, May and Helen, who were frequently at the estate while their mother worked, Kozub said.

The position “allowed my great-grandma to put both her daughters through college at a time when girls didn’t go to college much,” she said. “My grandmother May became a teacher and worked for 30 years, and [my great-aunt] Helen became a registered nurse.”

Credit: Provided
Maggie Barron Davis.

One of Kozub’s favorite tales about Davis’ employment is the time Davis was given a gun and assigned to protect guests’ valuables during a celebration at the mansion.

The Pullmans’ parties were “always the event of the year,” attracting Chicago’s social elites, Kozub said.

While on duty, Davis “went into the fur room, opened the door, and there’s a man climbing through the window,” Kozub said. “She shot him through the window, and the family and guests were thrilled. The story was told so many times, there’s no doubt in my mind that there are grains of truth in it.”

Davis’ trusted position in the home led to her hiring as the traveling “ladies’ companion” to the Pullman daughters, Florence and Harriett. The family, looking to travel under the radar, would use Davis’ name on their luggage to keep their valuables safe, Kozub said.

Though George Pullman was infamously paternalistic, and his exploitation of his employees culminated in the deadly Pullman Strike of 1894, Kozub’s family reflects warmly on their connection to the industrialist.

Davis’ husband, a Chicago police officer, was killed breaking up a bar fight when their daughters were toddlers. Though Davis was a widow with two young children, the Police Department refused to grant her husband’s pension, Kozub said.

George and Hattie Pullman “stepped up and helped her along the way, and she did end up receiving his pension,” Kozub said.

“The Pullmans were always talked about with respect — almost a fondness,” she said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
An ornamental column from the George Pullman Mansion is on display at the Historic Pullman Visitor Center, 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave., on Feb. 7, 2022.

Handmade pottery from the 1800s, Davis’ handmade lace wedding dress from Ireland, letters between Davis and Hattie Pullman, silk shawls and a couple of antique clocks were all donated and “will be on display with the Pullman House Project,” Kozub said.

Several “exquisite” rugs, a Waterford crystal bowl and lamps are among the items gifted by the Pullmans that the family will keep as heirlooms, Kozub said.

“I want that story to be preserved … for future generations to understand more about the Pullmans, Chicago, and hopefully my family,” Kozub said. “I’m thrilled that they’re moving ahead on the Pullman House Project. They’re moving ahead on their dream — and my dream, too — that all of this will get recorded and remembered.”

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