Not the Richest, But the Most Active
Hattie Pullman, a great party girl–when she didn’t have a headache.
By Megan McKinney
George Mortimer Pullman, was not the richest of the Chicago founders but few men of his time lived a more lavish lifestyle. He and his wife, Hattie, traveled incessantly yet were among the city’s most socially active couples. When in Chicago they were in constant motion—giving parties, going to parties and organizing such activities as adult ballroom dancing classes. Normally Chicago’s dance master, the dapper Col. Alvar L. Bournique, held these sessions for the children of the Prairie Avenue set, but Hattie made it fashionable for their parents to be guided through an adult version by the Colonel. And the old stuffed shirts loved it!
The ballroom at Bournique’s, where the children of Chicago’s founders and other Prairie Avenue District residents, were taught dancing and deportment.
Mrs. Pullman was the former Harriett Amelia Sanger, daughter of James Y. Sanger, whose company, Sanger, Steel, and Company, constructed railroads in Illinois, California and Missouri, as well as the storied penitentiary at Joliet outside of Chicago.
Hattie in 1907.
Nicknamed Hattie, she was a good-looking, energetic young woman, who had been educated in an Episcopal convent in San Francisco before returning to Chicago where she was a popular belle. Pullman’s 1867 marriage to her facilitated his entry into Chicago Society and, although they quarreled frequently, their marriage was a success.
Their daughter Florence—upon whom Pullman would dote excessively for the rest of his life—was born in 1868, followed by little Harriet in 1869. Identical twin sons, George Jr. and Walter Sanger, followed six years later.
Little Harriet and Florence Pullman as toddlers. They were almost—but not quite—twins.
Hattie with her sons, George Jr. and Sanger, who were indeed twins, identical twins.
Like many women of her time and class, Hattie was a hypochondriac with a continuing list of complaints that ranged from headaches and rheumatism to frequent attacks of grippe. With the leisure and means to create an active avocation of seeking cures, she followed a recurring round of visits to fashionable spas and resorts, including favorites in Hot Springs, Arkansas and St. Augustine, Florida.
Because George’s business required him to travel frequently and the couple often journeyed together for recreation, the Pullman children, raised entirely by nurses, governesses and tutors, saw even less of their parents than most in that era of Victorian parental distancing. Florence and Harriet were further removed when they left for two years of study in Paris before “finishing” at Miss Brown’s Fifth Avenue School in New York City and then embarking on the requisite Grand Tour of Europe.
The twins attended a variety of boarding schools, including St. Marks, Dobbs Ferry and The Hill School.
George Jr. and Sanger rapidly became ne’er do wells, heavy drinkers and dismal disappointments to their parents. Both died early, but more of that in a later segment.
The grandest mansion on the finest avenue of Chicago’s Gilded Age.
George Sr. was not subject to the Yankee reticence that governed so many of the founders; he enjoyed the good life and he lived it. The three-story Second Empire mansion he commissioned Chicago architect John M. Dunphy to design in 1873 was arguably the grandest in the city before the construction of Potter Palmer’s Castle a decade later. Chicago writer Arthur Meeker, who fictionalized the extravagant Pullman property in his novel Prairie Avenue, found it reminiscent of “the Grand Opera in Paris.”
This photograph of the grand entrance hall of the Pullman mansion is courtesy of David Garrard Lowe, who featured it in his magnificent book Lost Chicago.
The chateau’s interior was immense and expensively furnished, with paneled or marbled rooms in which several hundred people at a time could be entertained, and frequently were.
This is a portion of the white and gold salon, one of the immense spaces in which the Pullmans entertained hundreds of guests at a time in the mansion’s
A large conservatory and lighted fountain were notable features of a private garden and among the recreational rooms of the house interior were a bowling alley, billiard room and a theater.
The Red Room was a far more intime room to be enjoyed by family and close friends.
Although the mansion was completed in 1876, it really wasn’t; through the years there would be periodic additions and embellishments.
The Romanesque-style Pullman Building, built in 1883 on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street, was another monument to the Palace Car Prince. The building, which anticipated the current Chicago mania for downtown apartment living by well over a century, was designed by Pullman’s favorite architect, Solon S. Beman. Its top three floors were devoted to 75 luxurious apartments, most with fireplaces and all with views of Lake Michigan. These flats, occupied by such notable figures as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., Samuel Insull and the young bachelor Robert R. McCormick—before he became The Colonel—were the first apartments to be connected by intercom to a main reception area.
The top floor also housed a venerable—and popular—Chicago gathering spot, about which author Arthur Meeker reminisced, “In my youth my favourite place was the Tip-Top Inn atop the Pullman Building.”
Between the residential floors and the headquarters of the Pullman Palace Car Company on the building’s first three floors were offices for other Chicago businesses. It wasn’t to last. In 1916, the apartment floors were converted to offices, the TipTop moved to the Allerton Hotel, and, finally, in 1956, the building was demolished.
Pullman could be charming with friends and acquaintances within his circle but when he was among those he did not consider equals, his manner was that of towering arrogance. That arrogance—along with a controlling nature and unique approach to problem solving—would contribute to making George Pullman one of the most successful American businessmen of his century. And the same arrogance and need to control would lead to his downfall.
Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties series The Pullmans will continue with Pullman Houses: Summers in the East
Robert F. Carl