A family enjoys McKinley Park early in the 20th Century, as depicted in this historic photo.

McKinley Park Catalyzed Parks Innovation Across Chicago and Nation

Published January 14, 2020

Mark Kinsella bio photoMark KinsellaBy Mark Kinsella

Join me at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 15, at the McKinley Park Development Council Meeting at the Aquinas Literacy Center to learn about the need for a McKinley/Brighton Park Historical Society to celebrate the rich history of our area.

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McKinley Park, the namesake of our neighborhood, was a revolution in green space when it opened nearly 120 years ago. The park was unique, for it was the first large park built near an industrial area. Neighbors for years had called for a park to provide recreation for many of the working-class people who toiled in the Chicago stockyards and nearby factories.

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Our forebears’ requests were met by the South Park Commission, led by industrialists like meat-packing magnate Phillip Armour. The group sought a large tract on which to build a park: an extension of Progressivism-era ideals that posited the problems of society – poverty, violence, greed, racism and class warfare – could be addressed by providing a good education, a safe environment and an efficient workplace.

McKinley Park map Rand McNally 1904This Rand McNally map from the early 20th Century displays the neighborhood's layout prior to the expansion of McKinley Park.Parks became part of the desired safe environment, promoting recreation and physical fitness as essential for those working long hours in factories and industry. Parks also linked active play areas with tranquil environments for viewing and resting.

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For what is now McKinley Park, the South Park Commission set their sights on a former racetrack that had been owned and operated by “Long John” Wentworth from 1855 to 1868, but then had reverted back to cabbage patches, truck farms and a prairie. The Chicago Tribune reported the South Park Commission was turning an eyesore into a garden spot, bringing beauty as well as utility into the working-class district. The park, laid out in 1901, was originally going to be called Brighton Park, but when President William S. McKinley was assassinated on September 6, 1901, the commissioners named the park in his honor instead.

A Successful New Parks Model

McKinley Park opened with 35 acres on June 13, 1902, and 10,000 people attended the dedication ceremony. Henry G. Foreman, an organizer of the Chicago Stock Exchange, was president of the South Park Commissions’ Board of Commissioners and declared in his address that the opening of McKinley Park marked the beginning of a new era in park construction. “Two years ago, it was a cabbage patch, and the change made here in that short time shows what can be done in rapid park building,” he said.

McKinley Park was an immediate sensation. During its first year, 121,000 people made use of the swimming pool (in addition to the children who splashed in the park’s wading pool).

McKinley Park children at lagoon historic photoChildren play at the water's edge of the lagoon in McKinley Park in this early 20th Century photo.McKinley Park proved that a large park could be very successful in a working-class industrial neighborhood and catalyzed the practice of building urban parks in Chicago and across the nation. The Chicago Park District's description sums its effect up best: “The effort was so successful the following year the South Park Commission began creating a whole system of new neighborhood parks for the South Side. The first were Sherman, Ogden, Palmer and Bessemer parks, and Mark White, Russel, Armour and Cornell Square [parks]. These innovative neighborhood parks influenced the development of other parks throughout the United States.”

From Columbus to McKinley

The statue of President William McKinley in the northwest corner of McKinley Park is one of its most well-known features. It was dedicated on July 4, 1905, before a crowd of 6,000, including Illinois Governor Charles S. Deneen and Chicago Mayor Edward J. Dunne. The statue comes from the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, one of two statues of Christopher Columbus that was melted down and recast into the likeness of the assassinated president by sculptor Charles J. Mulligan and local metalworkers Winslow Brothers and Co.

Get free furniture for your new luxury home in Brighton Park

Get free furniture for your new luxury home in Brighton Park

The hugely successful park gave our neighborhood its name and fostered a building boom in the area: McKinley Park soon became a valued place to live because of its large green space. Frame-built, working-class houses began to be joined by single- and two-story brick houses and flats: Walk down 37th Street between Damen and Western avenues, and you will see examples of the fine stone architecture that to this day gives our area a historic feel.

New Generations for the Park

McKinley Park map 1906This circa 1906 map displays the expanded layout of McKinley Park.Over the years, McKinley Park has become an anchor for the entire Brighton Park and McKinley Park area as the neighborhoods have grown and changed. The huge influx of Latino residents have been joined by a cohort of Chinese and Chinese-American neighbors, all of whom enjoy the amenities and green space of McKinley Park.

The 69-acre park remains one of the jewels in the Chicago Park District, with a beautiful lagoon, running trails, a soccer field, ice rink, tennis courts, baseball fields, swimming pool and a field house. Activities range from an annual fishing derby at the lagoon to Tai Chi practice to picnicking and events by neighbors and visitors. (Politicians flock to the park, too.) The running scene is red-hot at McKinley Park, as it’s a preferred spot for joggers and hosts many running events for local schools and organizations.

McKinley Park remains an oasis in a working-class neighborhood, its trees and water standing out brilliantly from the brick buildings that surround it. Its green spaces, play areas and gardens anchor the neighborhood, balancing out the Central Manufacturing District, train lines, viaducts and industrial areas that ring the community. It stands as the largest central green place on the southwest side of Chicago and serves as a catalyst for further neighborhood development.

McKinley Park is indeed a social garden, one that has been and continues to be a great place for our physical, spiritual, family and community growth.

McKinley Park William McKinley statue historicResidents stand at the William McKinley memorial in McKinley Park after its dedication in 1905.

McKinley Park William McKinley statue contemporaryThe next generation of users of McKinley Park stand at the William McKinley memorial.

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