PULLMAN — Last week, I left the house and sloshed across the street to catch up with a tour of the historic Hotel Florence with a few folks interested in putting something useful in the historic landmark — maybe even a decent restaurant, coffee shop or tap room.
Railroad mogul George Pullman opened the 50-room hotel, named after his favorite daughter, in 1881. It served as the opulent centerpiece of his company town, a place to entertain railroad executives and visiting dignitaries. Pullman rented rooms to salesmen hawking iron and steel needed to manufacture Pullman's Palace Cars.
Hard times and generations of decay — including a long stint as a transient flophouse — stole much of the Queen-Anne style landmark’s glory.
The hotel remained in various states of disrepair until last year when work began on a state-funded $3.5 million makeover. Crews installed a slate and copper roof and repaired and repainted the sweeping veranda.
Workers continue to put the finishing touches on first-floor renovations that include replacing century-old plaster and crumbling floors.
The rehab, which is nearly complete, even included an elevator and handicap-accessible bathrooms.
Finally, after nearly 40 years of unlikely plans and empty promises, it seemed the grand old hotel might become more than a glorified clubhouse for certain Pullman neighborhood groups.
So, when I got word that the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency would show off the place to potential developers, I knew I had to be there. We got a look at the unfinished kitchen, dining rooms, storage closets, an elevator, new bathrooms and the fresh paint job over the historic woodwork.
The state preservation bureaucrat leading the tour explained this visit was a way for the state to gauge interest and answer questions from potential future developers who might be willing to set up shop there.
She explained that potential rental space was "as-is." The state has no "funding now or in the foreseeable future to undertake interior improvements or to operate a concession that serves food and beverages," according to the official “request for information."
In fact, one tour guide said the state might decide not to seek proposals for restaurants or retail businesses at all.
I left the tour wondering why it’s too much to ask state government to actually offer financial incentives or partner with a developer to attract business before planning where to put the elevator in a government-owned historic site in an underserved, often forgotten neighborhood that frankly could use the jobs, economic development, additional tourism and tax revenue that a $3.5 million renovation should bring?
Frankly, the whole situation is disheartening.
My neighbors have been waiting years for the Hotel Florence to be revived as the neighborhood-gathering place it once was — or at least a spot to grab a bite to eat or take your grandma to Sunday brunch.
If $3.5 million in renovations fails to do more than shore up an old building for the sake of "historic preservation" then let me be the first to say that my neighborhood — a special piece of Chicago history desperately in need of restaurants, retail shops, coffeehouses or decent taverns — got a raw deal. Taxpayers, too.
Thankfully, it’s not too late.
There’s still hope that the Hotel Florence can be developed into more than a well-preserved, handicapped-accessible ruin on the National Historic Register.
In a city filled with culinary stars, micro-brew maestros and craft-coffee tycoons, maybe it’s not a stretch that one of them comes up with an idea to make Hotel Florence into a unique destination restaurant that attracts foodies or beer snobs — those guys will go anywhere for good beer, even an Indiana industrial park.
Since the state won't do it, I'd like to publicly encourage Chicago’s food and booze visionaries — Stephanie Izard, Rich Melman, Billy Dec, Phil Stefani, Art Smith, Doug Zell and Emily Mange, Nick Floyd, Jarrett Payton, Michael Jordan and all of their contemporaries — to consider the potential there is for a successful business at the Hotel Florence, a special piece of historic Chicago that you can’t find anywhere else.
I apologize for not being able to offer much of an incentive.
Sadly, state-funded elevator access to the toilets is the best we can do in Illinois.