Lisa Burback lived in a Chicago Bungalow growing up on Chicago’s North Side, learning over those formative years it was more than just a roof over her head.
“My dad made sure I understood how special it was that we had that kind of house,” she said. “He pointed out changes that previous owners had made, and said it’s our job to take care of it before handing it off to the next owners.”
It’s a lesson she took with her when she moved from the North Side to Pullman in 2016, buying a 19th century worker’s cottage in a neighborhood she had only recently become aware of.
The spirit of being a caretaker of history is a natural fit in her role as the newest park ranger at Pullman National Monument, Chicago’s only National Park Service property.
“I’ve always been interested in Chicago history and architecture,” Burback said. “There are so many layers here that can appeal to any interest you have.”
Even with that inherent interest, the learning curve was steep.
“About 10 or 15 years ago, someone brought me down here,” she said. “I was 25 and I’d lived my whole life in Chicago and had never heard of Pullman. It was shocking to learn there was all this history that affected everyone nationally and is still affecting lives today.
“I didn’t learn about it in school, so it made me dig my heels in and find out, what is this place?”
One of the things she found out is that she’d like to live in Pullman.
“The more I learned, the more I came down and the more I liked it,” Burback said.
After eyeing the housing market in the neighborhood for a couple of years, Burback found just what she was looking for in a little worker’s cottage that was the right size and price for her in 2016, the same year that President Barack Obama visited Pullman to announce the new national monument.
Moving from the bustling North Side to “the very far reaches of the South Side” constituted a lifestyle change, Burback said.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said. “The community is so involved. You can’t walk down the street without people checking in on you, saying hi, seeing what you’re up to. Living in that kind of small-town environment was new to me, and it’s great.”
So she got involved too. She was now the owner of an “adorable” historic home herself, one that featured “the exact same floor plan as the day the first person moved in” nearly a century and a half ago, she said. She started volunteering with the annual Historic Pullman House Tour, an autumnal event that requires planning year-round.
It’s “when we really shine,” Burback said.
“Most people who live in Pullman are very committed to sharing what we’re all stewards of,” she said. “Not everyone is keen on it, but most people we ask are excited to let all these people in.”
Burback got married and loves collecting antiques with her husband, and they quickly outgrew the worker’s cottage. They bought another historic house, this time a skilled craftsman home. And a colleague with the house tour gave her a history of their new home.
“There were no notorious figures who lived in our house, except for one,” she said, which gave her another connection to Chicago history.
One of the home’s early owners was the co-owner of the Arcade Trading Co., a general merchandise store in Pullman’s Arcade Building, which some people consider to be America’s first indoor mall.
By that time it wasn’t the company store, but the other co-owner was John Patrick Hopkins, who went on to be a Pullman executive and was elected in the 1890s as Chicago’s first Irish Catholic mayor in a special election after Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated. Hopkins’ mayoral tenure lasted only two years and he died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1818.
But Hopkins’ partner’s 1881 house remains in great shape.
“We’re very lucky, Burback said. “The homeowners before us put in a lot of care and did a lot of restoration.”
When the national monument visitor center officially opened last Labor Day, Burback was on hand as a volunteer and liked it, so she took on some long-term volunteer work and took it seriously.
“I treated it like it was my job,” she said.
At first, the rewards were mostly cerebral — getting the chance to learn more about her adopted neighborhood while engaging more with neighbors and visitors alike.
She loved it, and months later when the ranger position opened, her labor of love turned into actual employment, and she quit her job of 10 years managing a real estate office to go to work for the National Park Service.
“When a national park opens up in your backyard and offers you a job, it’s pretty hard to say no,” she said.
That was about a month ago. In the weeks since, she’s been learning even more. Last week, she found out about the Allen Paper Wheel Co., one of the few contracting companies George Pullman allowed into his railcar complex. The idea was to make train wheels by encasing compressed paper in iron.
“They were supposed to provide a cushier ride,” Burback said, “but I believe that fact has been debated.”
Being able to share stories like that is not only a function of her job now, but it’s been her job as a resident of Pullman. That’s what makes her neighborhood special, she said.
“The community has come to gather so much around the national park,” Burback said. “We’re so engaged with visitors and making sure everyone has a good experience when they come here.
“This is not a regular neighborhood, this is a living historical park, and people take that seriously.”
Though Burback has wholeheartedly embraced the neighborhood, she’s still a relative newcomer to Pullman. But her job gives her the chance to preserve the stories of the area’s lifelong residents through oral history interviews.
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She recently interviewed some longtime residents who had first alerted authorities when the Pullman clock tower building caught fire in 1998.
“She was involved in plans to make it a transportation museum, and watched that literally go up in flames,” Burback said. “It was very emotional to hear them tell it.”
Burback also has met descendants of Pullman Porters and other factory workers, and even a few old-timers who used to work at Pullman themselves and who were very interested in “making sure the workers’ side of the story is told,” Burback said.
There are lots of historical facets to Pullman National Monument, but on a personal level, the people of Pullman have had the greatest impact.
“History is here for everyone to learn and is accessible through books and tours, but experiencing the community here has changed my life,” she said. “It changed my career, and my personal life.
“There’s nothing else like this in Chicago. I don’t know anywhere else in a major urban center where you can feel like you live in a small town.”
Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at email@example.com.