Pullman’s Hotel Florence deserves a chance to welcome guests again

The Pullman community has seen plenty of long-awaited successes in recent years. Legislators have a chance at another one, and should pass a bill to find a private developer to revive the historic Hotel Florence.

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The Hotel Florence in the Pullman neighborhood deserves a chance at a revival, and the General Assembly should move forward with it, the Editorial Board writes.

The Hotel Florence in the Pullman neighborhood deserves a chance at a revival, and the General Assembly should move forward with it, the Editorial Board writes.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Hotel Florence in the Pullman neighborhood has been in a kind of limbo since the state bought the Victorian-era landmark 32 years ago.

Built in 1881 by railroad car manufacturer George M. Pullman to welcome guests to his new self-contained company town, the state in 1991 had plans to restore the hotel and make it a tourist attraction for the historic neighborhood.

But the effort faced fits and starts — mostly fits — over the next three decades and was never completed.

That could change Wednesday. That’s when the Illinois General Assembly’s Executive Committee is set to hear a bill that would allocate $21 million toward the hotel’s restoration. The bill also calls for the state to seek a private operator that would handle the hotel’s redevelopment and run the facility afterward.

“Ideally, we’d get it renovated, we’d get a hotel operator and a restaurant owner to operate the restaurant,” said state Rep. Nicholas K. Smith, D-Chicago, who introduced the bill in late 2022 in the Illinois House.

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The Far South Side Pullman community has seen plenty of long-awaited successes lately. There’s the U.S. National Park Service turning the once-vacant former Pullman train factory at 11101 S. Cottage Grove Ave. into a beautifully restored visitors’ center in 2021, and the current commercial redevelopment of vacant industrial land on the north side of East 111th Street.

Given those successes, the executive committee must follow suit and give the thumbs-up to the Hotel Florence bill, followed by the Senate and then Gov. J.B. Pritzker granting the measure quick passage and a signature.

An incredible opportunity

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources owns the Hotel Florence, 11111 S. Forrestville Ave. The state bought the building in 1991 from the Historic Pullman Foundation, which purchased the structure in 1975 to save it from demolition.

In addition to the 1881 building, the hotel has a four-story annex that was built along 111th Street in 1914.

The vacant hotel has been under repair for more than a decade, “but progress on the renovation has been kind of slow,” Smith said.

The hotel has been open for tours on occasion. But if this latest effort is successful, guests could once again stay in the hotel, and its first floor restaurant — which had been operational off and on since the 1990s — would be revived as well. The state would retain ownership of the property.

“With every administration, they promised and nothing gets delivered,” Smith said. “Here we are now with an incredible opportunity.”

A benefit for Pullman — and Chicago

If the bill becomes law, the state’s Department of Natural Resources would have the power to issue a request-for-proposals within six months, seeking a developer/operator for the hotel — including the annex — and the restaurant.

The search would take six months, according to the bill. And the signed agreement would be good for 25 to 75 years.

If there is a hitch, it’s that it will likely cost more than $21 million to make the hotel operational again. Smith says it could take $50 million. Another source tells us it could be $60 million.

That’s a shortfall that has to be bridged, if this important project is to happen — and it should. Options could include city and federal funding, or some type of tax credit package, or all of the above.

But the end result would be a new, historic hotel and restaurant that is also a self-sustaining tourist destination that would compliment the National Park Service’s efforts in Pullman.

That’s good for the neighborhood, the South Side and the city itself.

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