A perfect hotel for the perfect town—that’s what the Hotel Florence was designed and built to be.
But not all was perfect: after his death George Pullman’s coffin needed to be lead-lined and encased in concrete for protection from angry workers. The Hotel Florence was one of the most splendid Chicago-area hotels of its day, and it exemplified the monetary success and grandeur of The Pullman Car Company.
George Pullman developed the sleeper rail car, also known as the palace car. Pullman dubbed it a “hotel on wheels” and made his fortune in the railroad business. To foster his continued success, Pullman decided to create a company town on the outskirts of Chicago near Lake Calumet.
He hired the architect Solomon Spencer Beman to build his company town, including the hotel he would name for his daughter Florence. Pullman believed that his car company, being so isolated from the saloons and general unrest of the city, would help him foster a happy, contented workforce. However, his invasive rules and demand for control would ultimately undermine the company-town experiment.
The Pullman plant closed its doors in the 1970s, but the town’s row houses, various community buildings, and magnificent Hotel Florence remain.
The hotel is constructed in the Gothic-Revival style. Completed in 1801, the original hotel (before the annex was added during the 1910s) featured 23,000 square feet that included 50 bedrooms. Like the town’s houses (larger homes were reserved for foremen, smaller ones for workers), the hotel featured elegant sleeping quarters throughout the second floor, including the suite for the Pullman family. The third floor contained less expensive, less richly-furnished rooms.
The Hotel Florence contained the only bar in town. Pullman wanted his model company town to be a dry town. Alcohol could not be sold on the grounds. In fact, many workers would have been fearful to enjoy it in any case in case their supervisors or other company superiors would hold it against them. Of course, Mr. Pullman’s guests and guests of the palatial hotel could enjoy a whiskey or other libation at its iconic mahogany bar. Naturally, Pullman’s workers would not have been welcome at the hotel bar. In 1902, the hotel added a restaurant that featured popular meal items like its signature pork chops.
According to an 1881 excerpt from Hotel World :
A veranda 16 feet wide and 268 feet long extends along the front and sides of the building which is treated in East Lake and Queen Anne designs, the ceiling being painted a light sky blue, which harmonizes perfectly with the deep red of the brick of which the walls are constructed…
Decked out with plush velvet and mahogany, the hotel was a decadent symbol of Pullman’s success, but also a marked contrast to the company’s workers who lived in far humbler circumstances.
In 1975, the Historic Pullman Foundation purchased the hotel to preserve and renovate it. The foundation organized tours, offered brunches in the hotel’s dining room (of which this writer was pleased to attend), and hosted special events. In 1991, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency took on ownership of the Hotel Florence and continues to oversee its renovations today. The hotel is set to reopen to the public some time in 2025. As one of Pullman’s architectural gems, the hotel is an integral part of the Pullman State Historic Site . While the interior is closed, the exterior is still a marvel to behold.