One of Chicago’s oldest green spaces, Ellis Park honors Samuel Ellis for whom Ellis Avenue is also named. Having arrived in Chicago from Massachusetts in 1831, Samuel Ellis (1790 - 1856) helped defend Chicago during the 1832 Black Hawk War.
Ellis purchased more than 135 acres of South Side lakefront property. He owned and ran the Ellis Inn, farmed the land, and served as the area’s milkman. In 1855, Ellis subdivided his land holdings between 31st and 39th Streets, from Lake Michigan to South Park Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Drive), and donated a wedge-shaped parcel to the city for use as a public park.
The area surrounding Ellis Park, known as the Oakland community, had first developed as a fashionable neighborhood, fell into decline at the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, as wealthy residents move out, their homes were divided into apartments and rooming houses. Ellis Park had also been impacted. Its landscape was carved up by adjacent residents who extended sidewalks from their homes and planted trees and shrubs on either side. A decaying bandstand added to the sense of disorder.
In the early 1900s, the Special Park Commission reclaimed Ellis Park from the encroaching property owners. Acclaimed landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860- 1951), then serving as a Special Park Commission member, redesigned the 3-acre park. His 1906 plan included two ornamental fountains and a circular, tree-edged lawn.
Decades later, the surrounding neighborhood changed again, and the federal government erected the Ida B. Wells housing project. To accommodate the area’s larger population, the city’s Bureau of Parks and Recreation (successor to the Special Park Commission) installed two new wading pools which drew more than 14,000 children the first summer.
The City of Chicago transferred Ellis Park to the Chicago Park District in 1957 pursuant to the Chicago Park and City Exchange of Functions Act. In 1962, the Park District purchased additional land east, west, and north of the original park from the City of Chicago, more than tripling its size. Improvements to the enlarged park included ball fields, tennis courts, as well as trees, lawns, and walkways.
Over the years, the neighborhood surrounding Ellis Park continued to change. The Chicago Housing Authority demolished the Ida B. Wells and Madden Park Homes. Today, CHA provides a number of scattered site rental apartments in the neighborhood. For years, the community lacked swimming facilities and other amenities.
In 2015, ground was broken in Ellis Park for a state-of-the-art field house providing the community with a greatly needed recreational and cultural facility. The Chicago Park District worked with the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Housing Authority and its partner The Community Builders, Inc. (TCB) to develop the new center.
Designed by Booth Hansen and Nia Architects, the 32,000-square foot two story building reflects a contemporary aesthetic. Composed of precast concrete, metal framing and glass fiber reinforced concrete wall panels, the building provides an indoor swimming pool; full-sized gymnasium; multi-purpose club rooms for art, education, performance, meetings and exercise; a fitness center with weight and strength training equipment; second-level outdoor patio space with catering kitchen for park and special events and fully equipped and accessible men’s, women’s and family locker rooms. The facility was completed and opened to the public in the summer of 2016.