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Pullman National Monument restoration plans ramping up

Restoration plans for the Pullman National Monument are expected to soon pick up speed.

The National Park Service and several partners will gather at Pullman National Monument’s temporary visitor center on the South Side o talk about its future Feb. 19 — the anniversary of its designation as a national monument. President Barack Obama was in Chicago last year for the designation of the former railcar manufacturing neighborhood as a national monument.

On the surface, not much has changed since then. The National Park Service put its banner on the visitor center it shares with the Historic Pullman Foundation, and a cafe has opened in the historic district.

Plans are firming up behind the scenes to rejuvenate the South Side neighborhood, where African-American railroad workers won a significant labor agreement in the 1930s.

“The real action or change will start in the spring, and that change is happening over the next one to five years,” said Lynn McClure, Midwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Officials are awaiting soil samples on the former factory grounds, which is a brownfield site. Volunteer cleanup efforts supervised by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency could begin as soon as this spring. Cleanup would pave the way for the administration building on the factory grounds to be renovated into the new visitor center.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has mapped out preliminary restoration efforts for a steel rail ar used by President Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, when he was chairman of the board of the Pullman Palace Car Co. And the historic Hotel Florence could get an upgrade.

“It may not appear that a lot is going on, but, compared to a lot of other national parks, we’re moving at light speed,” said Paul Labovitz, the park’s acting superintendent.

Labovitz said several thousand tourists have visited the temporary visitor center, which has videos on the neighborhood’s history and several artifacts, including furniture from the Pullman Mansion.

Outside the visitor center, opportunities for tourists are mainly limited to self-guided tours throughout the neighborhood.

The Bielenberg Historic Pullman House Foundation aims to add several new exhibits on neighborhood life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is guiding the Pullman House Project and has been fixing up its first exhibit — the home of a carpenter who went on to serve as head of manufacturing.

Other projects in the works include lofts geared toward artists and a retail strip.