Designing Pullman’s Factory and a Mysterious Find

Solon Spenser Beman and Nathan F. Barrett designed George Pullman’s factory and community, starting in 1879. Beman designed the buildings and Barrett the landscaping and organization. When construction began, Barrett laid out the footprints while Beman supervised construction through a bonanza-like rush of building between May of 1880 and April of 1882. Stanly Buder (1967:49-59) summarized the fantastical rate and scale of the operation, widely reported in newspapers and magazines. Dr. Buder quoted draftsman Irving Pond’s recollection that the design and revision process happened so quickly that staff often fleshed out plan details on the the floors of buildings as they were being built. Beman found the process exhausting and he took a break in January of 1881, taking time to travel to his New York home.

These events interest us for several reasons. First, this gives a good window on the social process of creating the factory and town. The effort required the coordinated creative labor of hundreds of people and as such, we must learn to see a building like the Palace Car Erecting Shop as the realization of the collective vision of many people, including the architect but also the masons, ironworkers, carpenters, machinists, brickmakers, and so on, as well as the people who lived and worked in these spaces. The material evidence of this collective creativity is fossilized in the masonry, concrete, and organization of the works.

Second, and more urgent for the current study, is that the material evidence provides unique evidence about the design process. A workplace may be designed by one person; built by another; inhabited, used, revised by a third; and redesigned and rebuilt by still another. The physical remains often reveal clues as to how that process occurred. Because the material evidence is independent of what people wrote about the design, it adds a new stream of evidence to counterbalance textual and photographic sources as we tell the stories of the Pullman factory.

Very few architects had designed factories in 1879 and 1880. The process by which S. S. Beman and George Pullman interacted to design the factory is known in outline, but not detail. Beman was 27 years old when he won this commission, experienced in residential structure design. Beman had never designed a factory, however. Most architects considered industrial architecture to be beneath the aesthetic missions of their field. So how did Solon arrive at his design?

This is really important, since both the architect and the owner invested so much in this idea. The Pullman factory and community were an experiment intended to do nothing less than transform the practice of industrial capitalism. For his part, George Pullman claimed that the design of the factory (and the town) was a logical extension of the “Pullman System”: beautiful/quality, ordered, functional, scale, and consistency. Many of these themes would have resonated with an architect at this time.

Masthead of The Railway Age Monthly and Railway Service Magazine, Vol 1, No. 5. Chicago, May 1880.

Pullman’s project set the world buzzing with interest. The print media of Chicago printed updates on construction and witness accounts were printed around the world. One of these articles appeared in the fifth issue of the inaugural volume of The Railway Age Monthly and Railway Service Magazine (Vol 1, No. 5. Chicago, May 1880). The RAMRSM claimed this article, “Proposed Car Shops of Pullman’s Palace Car Company,” was the first authorized public statement about the planned construction of the works. The magazine printed a large map, included below, and asserted that the shops would be the largest and most complete rail car erecting shops in the world. The essay reports that the layout of the works will be “compactly located as regards each other” providing for the efficient movement of materials and people, will include “Only first class machinery,” and will be “provided with numerous turn tables so that cars can be run in and out without switches.”

Of particular interest is this sentence: “The plans of these great works have now been fully elaborated, down to the location of every piece of machinery, and work will be commenced as soon as the final selection of location [is complete]” (p. 269).

The suggestion of very detailed and thoughtful planning in factory design is reflected elsewhere. Bessie Pierce translated the report of French economist de Roussiers about the works (1933, quoted in Buder 1967:58):

The planning of these workshops is remarkable, and every detail seems to have been considered. To cite one point, the buildings in which the freight-cars are built are a series of vast sheds as broad as the cars are long. Opposite each car a large bay opens on the iron way and a car, as soon as it is finished, runs along the rails and leaves the shop. All the timber that forms a car is cut to the required size and is got ready for fitting together in a special department, whence it is brought along the same rails to the sheds where the car is built. Tiny little locomotives are running along the lines which are built in the spaces between the various workshops…. Everything is done in order and with precision; one that no blow of a hammer, no turn of a wheel is made without cause. One feels that some brain of superior intelligence, backed by a long technical experience, has thought out every possible detail.”

Buder noted that Beman invested great care in planning movement and flow of materials and personnel, installing more than 20 miles of track through the facility. He used bridges to connect the second and third stories of nearby buildings so workers would not have to descend, cross a light railway, and the climb up again to complete a task.

So, again, how did Solon come to this design? We want to know this because it provides a starting point from which we can interrogate the material evidence about life-history of the Pullman factory: as-designed, as-built, as-lived and as-used, then redesigned, used, redesigned, used, redesigned, and so forth until abandonment and demolition.

It is safe to say that in 1878, Solon Bemen knew nothing about rail car manufacture or erecting shops. He must have spent a great deal of time with George Pullman and other company staff talking about production. Stan Buder explained that Bemen visited Pullman’s Detroit yard in mid-November of 1879. He then left for New York and visited a series of car shops along the way during the trip. We still need to research the archival material left by Bemen and see what we can learn about these trips.

This map that accompanied the RAMRSM article is really interesting and a bit mysterious. It is a measured plan of the buildings, showing their arrangement. Presumably Pullman’s staff sent this drawing to the magazine. This is the first graphic representation of the Pullman factory that we’ve been able to find.

Proposed Car Shops of the Pullman Palace Car Company. Drawing from page 269 of The Railway Age Monthly and Railway Service Magazine, Vol 1, No. 5. Chicago, May 1880

Readers can compare this with the map below, which represents “as-built” and then “as-lived” for the employees working during Pullman’s first decade in operation in Chicago.

Rasher’s 1892 version of the 1886 base fire insurance map. Portion of scan courtesy of University of Illinois Map Library.

The comparison is really interesting, since the layout of buildings in the 1880 plans is similar to what was actually built. Had Bemen worked out the process flow through the factory already by the time they released this map to the magazine? When did George Pullman select the final site for the factory on the land acquired by the Pullman Land Company? When did Bemen make the final adjustments to the design for layout?

If we can find the production records, we hope to be able to answer many of these questions!

Pullman Mapquest

One of our first research tasks is to develop a spatial chronology that shows the development of the Pullman Palace Car Company’s Erecting Shops. We need to do this to provide a spatial and temporal structure around which we can discuss work at the factory:

  • How did the process flow while building a palace sleeper car? Were there work stations? How were they connected? Can we follow a car from parts to rolling out onto the rail?
  • How did a particular worker move around the factory while completing tasks? By contrast, how did different activity areas connect in space?
  • Where in the process were employees most autonomous and where were they most closely observed? How/Why?
  • If we think about flow and movement, of employees and products, energy and waste, what patterns emerge and how do they change over time?

In order to do this study, we’re looking for primary documents like maps, plans, blueprints, and photos, along with textual sources like ledgers and shop reports.

Funny thing– there are excellent documents like these in the collection of the Newberry Library. The maps and drawings held in the Newberry have details like these:

  1. These first three drawings are of the Calumet Works, the maintenance shops at the Pullman Company operations on Lake Calumet.

The Chief Mechanical Officer kept all the blueprints and drawings of the maintenance shops and laundries in one place, eventually binding them into oversize books.


2. What is great about these maps, as you can see with these examples from the Wilmington Shops in Delaware, is that the plans are often ‘traces’ of older maps with layers of sketches and markings (here in yellow and red) for proposed additions, changes, and developments.




These maps include all kinds of improvements to the factory systems.

3. Most exciting, in terms of our current project, is that these maps sometimes include amazing levels of detail about how work was structured and organized within the space of the workshop floor. Look at these examples from the Richmond Shops that include machine locations and work spaces, complete with a key!

This level of detail is excellent and would give us tremendous insight into how the erecting shops were laid out (as designed) and perhaps how workers then used them as they modified their work areas. We could call that “as lived” or “as used” spatial organization.

Do you know where we can find any maps like these for the Palace Car Erecting Shops? Newberry doesn’t have those, which I’ll try and explain in my next post. But if you have information about maps like these, we’d love to hear from you!

You could really help us with our research if you have any leads!

Opportunities abound at Pullman

Our first formal site visit as a team took place last week during our spring break.  A number of us went down to make some connections at the Pullman State Historical Site and Newberry Library and to become familiar with the factory complex, archival holdings, and current developments at the Monument.  Meeting with David Schultz (PSHS) and Kathleen Schneider (NPS) helped us understand what the site needs and what we can offer the site.

From a research point of view, the majority of archival manuscripts are held at the Newberry, and curator Martha Briggs (who inventoried the Pullman collection when it first came in) was a great help in finding hidden gems.  Future posts will discuss interesting finds about the factory and in the archives.

As an example of the sorts of research questions that jump out at you when you find nuggets at sites–artifactual in this case–consider the following photo:

The photo is looking east at the northwest corner of the Rear Erecting Shop (RES) and you can see the rails in the floor of what used to be the southern main erecting shops.  Today you can see that this set runs off in the weeds through the braces that hold up the RES’s wall (installed after the disastrous 1998 fire), but in the past there would have been a shallow 30ft. wide pit running from left to right across the face of the RES.  In fact, this pit ran the entire N-S length of the main part of the factory site, all along the back of the main shops and office (it was about 700ft. long). This was the transfer table pit, where a low flatcar with rails that matched up to those seen in the ground here so that a car that was being worked on might roll off one set of these rails and be shifted laterally to any other set.  To the right is an image of a similar and possibly contemporary sort of equipment.

The mystery, though, is what happened to that pit.  The southern main erecting shops were enlarged in 1907 and even though it seems that a transfer table was still needed, somehow the work processes or flow in this new layout, or perhaps in later renovations, made it more trouble than benefit and the whole transfer table was filled in.  We hope to reconstruct those workflows to help the Monument understand how the site evolved over time.