Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the extra alarm blaze that nearly destroyed the vacant, but historic, Pullman Factory and Administration building at 111th and Cottage Grove.
The good news: The exterior of the state-owned national landmark has been nicely rehabbed. Better than before in many ways, with a lighted and functioning clock tower, new roof and a red brick exterior that makes the building look as good today as it did when it was built in 1880. But the bad news: The old complex is still empty with no concrete plans for its future use. Just as it was in December, 1998 when an arsonist set fire to the joint. At least there is a watchman there now.
There has been 20 years of talk about turning the facility to a railroad museum. How 1990's. Even if they could get enough rolling stock to display, nobody will come to Pullman to see trains---no matter how shiny--sitting in a building. So what will breathe new life into the facility and create a draw to this unique piece of Americana (and the historic neighborhood that surrounds it)?
I have an idea. Turn the factory into the most visible adaptive-reuse project in the world: The Barack Obama Presidential Library.
I know. I know. The man hasn't even been sworn in yet. But given the size and cost of presidential libraries, it's never too early to start thinking about these things. The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, located in Little Rock, sits on 28 acres and cost $165 million. The George W. Bush Presidential Library--construction starts next year---could cost as much as $500 million.
For the Obama Presidential Library, the state could donate the Pullman factory site. The RFP for the project would then require the preservation and reuse of the existing structure as part of an exciting new complex and park. All of it could be built on the existing Pullman factory property.(Click here to see an aerial shot of the site, and while you're there, click on Google streetview and have a look around.)
If Obama is half as popular a president as he has been a candidate, the library would be a huge draw. The Lincoln Library in Springfield draws a million visitor year; Obama can pull those numbers standing in Grant Park with no more than a microphone and a teleprompter.
Presidential libraries have all are the papers and artifacts of the president's term, but other things as well. The Reagan Library has the Air Force One used by President Reagan during his term. I visited the Lyndon Johnson Library a few years ago and saw, among other things, the presidential limo and Lady Bird's office.
The Obama library will be a big "get" and I'm sure the lobbying machine is already being built in Hyde Park and the University of Chicago. But Obama's early days as a little-known community organizer were spent on the far South Side. Back then, his strategy meetings took place at a McDonald's just three blocks due south of the Pullman factory. The presidential library would bring the kind of investment, equity, attention--and yes, change--that the Far South Side, and Chicago, sorely needs.