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Winter 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 1

Preserving Chicago’s Pullman State Historic Site

by Aimee Roy

Mike WagenbachFollowing a devastating arson fire at the Pullman Palace Car Factory in 1998, Mike Wagenbach ’89 was hired by the State of Illinois Historic Preservation Agency as the superintendent of the Pullman State Historic Site. His job was to establish state operations and local management of the 13-acre site. The factory town, built by industrialist George Pullman in the late 1800s, is about 15 miles south of Chicago’s loop in an area generally known as the Lake Calumet region, home to much of the region’s industry.

Pullman owned shops in St. Louis, Detroit, New York, and Delaware, as well as several factories in Europe and England. The company manufactured sleeping cars, boxcars, coal cars, baggage cars, chair cars, refrigerated cars, streetcars, and mail cars.

Wagenbach holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Bradley, and a master’s degree in public administration and policy analysis from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, but his passion for history started at a young age when his parents took him to visit cultural tourist destinations and historic sites. “My parents were casual collectors, and that early exposure to the ‘stuff of the ages’ was influential in the formation of my own appreciation of cultural material,” says Wagenbach. “They provided a home environment where our minds would be engaged rather than passively entertained.”

He gained additional knowledge of early nineteenth and twentieth century construction during some of his early work experiences mowing lawns. One formative experience was at the family estate of Florence Heyl Strubhar, an heir to the Heyl Pony Farm of Washington, Illinois. “It was that early exposure to a spectacular early twentieth century built environment and landscape that made history take on a tangible quality,”
says Wagenbach.

Later, Wagenbach volunteered as an interpreter at historic site events in order to have free reign in the areas and collections that would have otherwise been under restricted access. “It was from these experiences and others like them that I gained a working knowledge of construction methodologies of the period and a passion for history,” he remembers.

The fire at the factory in December 1998 created the impetus for the state agency to commission Wagenbach’s office to oversee the rescue, stabilization, restoration, and development of the Pullman properties held in public trust. “It was nothing short of a strange twist of fate that I had amassed in-depth knowledge of the period construction and was a trained bureaucrat,” says Wagenbach.

“George Pullman believed that providing
pleasant and artfully created spaces would raise
the moral character of the industrial worker.”
The Pullman State Historic Site complex is comprised of the last remaining original factory, with its famed six-story clock tower; three-story administration building and factory wings; and the four-story, 65-room Hotel Florence with a 60-room annex. The Pullman site was designated as a national landmark in 1969 because of the area’s contributions to labor and urban planning history.

Company-owned town

Florence HotelThe original town of Pullman was completed in 1884 and occupied 300 acres. The town was entirely company-owned and provided housing, markets, a library, churches, and entertainment for the 6,000 company employees and their dependents. Six acres of the land on the shore of Lake Calumet was used for nursery and greenhouse space. The quality of the company-owned and maintained housing was uncommonly good for worker housing. “The place had a distinct aesthetic bias by design,” says Wagenbach. “George Pullman believed that providing pleasant and artfully created spaces would raise the moral character of the industrial worker.”

Wagenbach says the Pullman site has not yet reached the point of restoration. “The first thing we do is rescue and stabilize. We secure the envelope of the building—roofs, fenestration, moisture and thermal protection, address structural failures, and attend to life safety concerns.”

Pullman factoryJill Popenhagen Murtagh ’85 and her husband Glenn Murtagh ‘88 are among the 3,000 residents of South Pullman’s tidy row houses. “The architects I worked with insisted that we visit the neighborhood for its architectural significance, and we fell in love with the place on sight,” says Jill. “To be able to walk down street after street almost unchanged since the turn of the century—well, that’s why movie studios love to shoot here. The Road to Perdition was filmed here, and all they had to do was move cars and take down street signs.” Jill says it is crucial to the couple that they live in a landmarked area. “We lived and worked in lovely old Chicago neighborhoods that have now been devastated—beautiful historic properties cleared for cash.

Since the homes in Pullman are protected, we can expect future generations to enjoy this living history,” she said.
Glenn adds, “Mike’s work here in Pullman is a critical component in the preservation of the entire neighborhood. The factory site, the Florence Hotel, and annex are the jewels in the crown here, and their restoration would be going nowhere without Mike’s passion and expertise.”

Until a decision is made about the permanent use of the Pullman Historic Site, “behind the scenes” tours are conducted, which are a part-history and part-preservation logic, for roughly 10,000 tourists annually. “Imaginations are engaged in a dramatically different way than seeing a historic site in a fully restored state,” says Wagenbach. “We have organized an archive and have the collections on display, developed academic and special interest tours programs, and have put together a virtual museum on the Web.”

See the virtual museum at


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