The (Possibly) Lost Pullman Cottage


The onetime factory town of Pullman is most famed for its brick rowhouses, which were extensively covered by contemporary press when the town was built by the Pullman Palace Car Co. for their workers in the early 1880s. Company founder George Pullman posited the community as utopian, with indoor plumbing and other rare amenities for laborers at the time.

The claim of a harmonious community of workers and their managers was misleading in many ways - George Pullman himself lived elsewhere in Chicago, the size and comfort of different rowhouses was far from equal, and the company strictly controlled life inside the private town. Tensions between Pullman's carefully crafted utopian public image and its obvious power disparities would come to a head in 1894, with the outbreak of a massive, deadly strike whose solidarity from railway unions paralyzed trains across the country. But they started much earlier.



The brick used to construct most of the massive Pullman factory and its adjoining town didn't come from outside sources - it was dredged from the clay right next to the factory town. Pullman operated its own brickyard beginning in 1881, at 116th & Stephenson (now Champlain). The brickyard needed workers, and the land upon which the Pullman Brickyard was situated was largely rural at the time. No towns were nearby. So brickyard workers were housed in rows of tiny frame shacks, with none of the amenities of the brick rowhouses they were supplying for.

The "Brickyard Cottages", with no indoor plumbing and no paved streets, continued to house Pullman workers long after the town's rowhouses had been completed. Brickyard workers and laborers from other parts of the company lived inside, paying rent to George Pullman's company. When the historic 1894 strike broke out, a result of the Pullman company raising rents even while laying off much of its workforce, newspapers focused extensively on tenants of the Brickyard Cottages. They were a clear demonstration of the hypocrisy of the factory town's premise.

The Brickyard Cottages were never meant to be in the public eye. They were generally not mentioned in fawning narratives about the town that had been published prior to the strike. After the strike, the brickyard ceased operation, and in 1896 the Pullman company sold it off. It is not entirely clear when the Brickyard Cottages ceased to be - sometime between the strike and the sale. But we know that they were mostly demolished. A small handful were moved from the site, scooped up by workers or realtors. Relocating the small frame buildings was cheap.


Today, the one confirmed remaining Brickyard Cottage is a few blocks from its original site, in the 11900 block of Calumet Avenue. It was abandoned in the last decade, and the only other confirmed Brickyard Cottage was torn down nearby.


On a visit to this house, I was struck with deja vu. In Chicago, it's extremely rare for buildings to be as thin as the Brickyard Cottages - Pullman was built with lot sizes that were smaller than a standard city lot, long before it was annexed into city limits. But this shape seemed familiar...


I realized, looking at the house on Calumet, that there's a little house in South Shore that is remarkably similar in form, one which always confused me because there's no reason for it to have been built that way where it sits. It's uncommonly small, and unlike others around it.

It had to be a coincidence, right? I thought so, but looking at every resource I have (Sanborn maps, old building permits, Census records, newspaper archives, etc.), the earliest trace I can find of this little house is in 1897 - right after the brickyard was emptied of houses. This would be a pretty large distance to have moved a simple frame cottage. But not unheard of - house relocation isn't a topic that I'm super knowledgeable about, but I found several examples of working class housing being moved by owners or realtors in Chicago around that time.

The 1897 Sanborn map on which the house first appears shows it as one of the first arrivals on its block, markedly different than the others. Many of those others have associated sale listings or construction notices in contemporary papers. This doesn't. Unfortunately, there's no smoking gun. It's highly likely that the Brickyard Cottages that were moved from the factory town were done so by realtors who bought them cheaply from the new brickyard owners, rather than by residents. So linking records is nigh on impossible.


But crucially, there isn't any clear countervailing information. This little house, far from Pullman at 7139 S. Cornell, is unlike the vast majority of workers cottages in Chicago. Its 1897 footprint matches the Brickyard Cottages exactly. And it showed up at just the right time.