On Labor Day, supporters optimistic about completing work on Chicago's Pullman National Monument

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Planning and design experts tour the historic Pullman factory on April 16, 2015, before a series of public meetings about the project's future. - Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — A Labor Day celebration was held Monday to commemorate another stop along the journey of the Pullman National Monument to full-fledged attraction.

State and local officials, as well as project stakeholders, spoke near the clock tower building and sprawling factory grounds, a fitting location for a holiday spurred by the labor movement.

Monday’s small gathering, more than a century after the 1894 strike and landmark unionization and labor victory of the African American Pullman porters, marked the groundbreaking of more site work under the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which owns surrounding grounds and buildings.

“This is going to set the stage for the visitors who come to Pullman,” said the monument’s superintendent, Teri Gage.

In February, supporters gathered at Hotel Florence five years after then-President Barack Obama designated the historic neighborhood a national monument. More than $34 million in public and private funds had been raised for the renovation of the clock tower building, once nearly destroyed by arson, and the factory grounds. A $5.8 million contract was awarded to minority-owned Griggs Mitchell & Alma of Illinois to stabilize the tower building and develop the visitors center, the National Park Service announced.

That work is now well underway, Gage said, and she’s “cautiously optimistic” about a target grand opening set for late August 2021.

The site has continued to operate through the summer and is still open and accessible to visitors, Gage said. Tours of the Arcade Park area have been shortened and group sizes are limited.

Construction has been moving along, said David Doig, president of developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.

“What we always try to put in perspective is, as the National Park Service says — we’re in the forever business,” Doig said. “So this is going to have to stand the test of time. And so even though it’s taken a while, I think the long-term benefits of that will play out over the next century and beyond.”

And, Doig said, “The real celebration will be next year when we cut the ribbon.”

George Pullman’s namesake neighborhood, once an industrial hub and model town, was long prioritized by supporters who pushed for its revitalization. But even after the site was named a national monument, progress was slow. Industrial waste needed to be cleaned up, more funding was needed and work was delayed after several federal government shutdowns and a state budget standoff.

The February event brought supporters closer to completing the monument’s renovations on high-priority historic buildings, which are estimated to bring 300,000 visitors annually once they’re open to the public.

Alderman Anthony Beale said the chance to highlight the monument’s progress on Labor Day was “extremely satisfying and gratifying.”

“The community is growing, but to actually have something of this magnitude happen is really going to be a game changer for our community,” Beale said. “I think people don’t want to be left out of the success story that Pullman has to offer.”

There are always financial challenges, Beale said, but he hopes funding continues to come through on the state and federal levels. But, he said, “It’s not ‘hopefully.’ We’re going to open it next year.”

Colleen Callahan, director of IDNR, said the groundbreaking presents an opportunity to reflect on history and look forward.

“Here we are 126 years later,” Callahan said. “The Pullman car workers walked off the job, went on strike, and that influenced and really foreshadowed our nation’s labor and civil rights movements, as well as the creation of Labor Day itself as a national holiday.”

The progress at the monument feels personal, Callahan said, because her grandpa worked on the Illinois Central Railroad, repairing hotboxes. “It was dirty, greasy work,” she said. “But he kept the trains running.”

And, Callahan said, “He always wore union-made coveralls, or bibs, and he would point out to me the union label.”

When the visitors center at the clock tower opens, it will include historical exhibits recounting Pullman’s history, Callahan said.

“Not only as a model town, but as that labor mecca.”

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Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS
The renovated Clock Tower and Administration Building in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood is seen through a corroded gate on Feb. 10, 2015. - Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS