President Barack Obama's designation of Chicago's Pullman Historic District as a national monument on Thursday brings legal protections for the area, once regarded as one of the nation's most endangered historic sites.
The district's grand Victorian red-brick buildings once housed the machinery and people that were the beating heart of the Pullman Palace Car Co. in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In its heyday, Pullman was the premier manufacturer of luxury rail cars. Pullman Historic Foundation President Michael Shymanski said Chicago was an ideal location for the operation, thanks to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
“In the 1860s, Chicago was emerging as the rail hub of the nation,” Shymanski said.
Industrialist George Pullman designed the whole town. “The idea behind it was to make a place that was orderly, efficient, and beautiful for the people who wanted to work for the Pullman company and other people who wanted to live here,” Shymanski said.
By the 1900s, the district's streets were full of Pullman employees. The Pullman company became one of the largest employers of African-Americans, who worked as porters and staff on Pullman’s sleeper cars.
Among those porters was an ancestor to someone close to Obama.
A great-granddaughter of one porter “had the chance to go on to a great college and a great law school and had a chance to work for the mayor, and had the chance to climb the ladder of success, and serve as a leader in some of our city’s most important institutions," he said.
"And I know this because she is the first lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.”
The president said his wife’s ancestors also helped organize the first African-American labor union. Union leaders helped launch the civil rights movement of the 20th century, paving his way to the presidency.
“It’s a story of labor, civil rights, a story about African-Americans," said U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, an Illinois Democrat. "I think the confirmation of what this site means made it compelling.”
Kelly, who encouraged the president to make Pullman a national monument, said that "he worked in this area when he was a community organizer, and I think this will be a part of his legacy.”
But it almost wasn't. The ravages of time and fire prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to name Pullman one of the most endangered historic places in the United States.
“About 90 percent of the original housing exists, but only less than 10 percent of the original manufacturing buildings exist," Shymanski said. "And that goes to reflect that the housing worked.”
Shymanski, who lives in the Pullman Historic District, said making the neighborhood a national monument would help preservation efforts and encourage people to visit the site to understand its role in shaping America.
“This place has been a milestone in our journey towards a more perfect union,” Obama said.
Though there are many historic locations throughout Chicago, Obama’s designation makes the Pullman Historic District the city's first national monument.