In 1848, as the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trustees prepared sale maps for public land to generate revenue that would be used to build the canal, they set aside a 5 ½ acre parcel on what was then the West Side of Chicago to create a small park. Originally named Jefferson Park, the City’s Bureau of Public Works soon improved the small square with lawn trees and a small lake as its centerpiece.
Theodore Dreiser described the park in his famous novel, Sister Carrie. In this influential work (which was considered immoral at the time) G.W. Hurstwood, a married man, waited for his mistress Carrie Meeber, while she "... found a rustic bench beneath the green leaves of a lilac bush.... At a little pond nearby some cleanly dressed children were sailing white canvas boats. In the shade of a green pagoda a bebuttoned officer of the law was resting, his arms folded."
During Chicago’s earliest history, the neighborhood surrounding Jefferson Park was one of Chicago’s most fashionable areas. After the Great Fire of 1871, however, the residential area began to decline, and the park also slowly deteriorated.
The City transferred the site to the West Park Commission in 1885, and the commission substantially improved the small park a few years later. By the 1910s, many other west side parks had facilities specifically for children, and in 1915 a group of local residents petitioned for a children's playground, wading pool, natatorium, and outdoor gymnasium. As this project would have required filling in the park's lake, the commissioners decided not pursue it at that time.
In 1934, when the West Park Commission was consolidated into the Chicago Park District, the park became known as the “the first Jefferson Park” because the park district also took possession of another site named Jefferson Park on the city’s Northwest side.
The first Jefferson Park remained unchanged until 1955, when it was renamed in honor of the adjacent Mark Skinner School. One of Chicago’s earliest school inspectors, Mark Skinner (1836-1887) went on to serve as a U.S. attorney for Illinois, and a State Representative.
Soon after its renaming, the park’s lake was filled to make way for ball fields and a playground, to better serve adjacent what is now known as Skinner West Classical Elementary School. In the mid 1970s, Whitney Young Magnet High School opened just southwest of the park.
Over the years, adjacent streets were greened over, and Skinner Park was expanded to slightly more than 7 acres in size. Recent improvements include a new playground with a climbable created by Phil Schuster and Jennifer Gotowski and the Chicago Public Art Group.