Columbus Park spans more than 140 acres in Chicago’s Austin community. It is considered landscape architect Jens Jensen’s best work, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003. Jenson (known today as the dean of Prairie-style landscape architecture) created the entirely new park as a result of years of design experiments and efforts for conservation. Today, the park features a large fieldhouse, outdoor swimming pool, sporting fields and a fishing lagoon.
Columbus Park Features
In 1912, Chicago park commissioners acquired 144 acres of farmland and designated it Christopher Columbus after the famed Italian explorer. Jensen was enlisted as the lead landscape architect, and worked with a vision inspired by the site’s natural history and topography. Jensen was convinced there was an ancient beach on the land, so he created a series of berms surrounding the park’s flat interior. In the center, he created a “prairie river” sourced by two waterfalls. He included native plants throughout the park.
Many of Jensen’s historic touches are still included in the park today. One is the Jensen Council Ring, originally a circular stone storytelling bench in the children’s play area. The beautiful Refectory Building on the northern end of the park is still present today, as well. The building is available to rent and is a popular Chicago wedding venue.
The Refectory also features a mural of Columbus Ships in its great hall. The artwork was produced by Roy L. Terwilliger in 1922. His mural depicts Columbus’s three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
More modern features are found in the park’s massive fieldhouse. It is home to two gymnasiums, a fitness center, three kitchens, meeting rooms, a senior center and a banquet room. There is also a playground on a rubberized surface for kiddos, complete with climbing activities, slides and swings.
More recreation is found outside, with a nature area, jogging path, separate bicycle path and a nine-hole golf course. The park also includes an outdoor swimming pool, fishing lagoon, basketball courts and artificial turf fields for baseball, soccer and football.
Along with recreation, the park is home to a Natural Area covering 9.6 acres of native woodland, lagoon, wetland habitat and wet prairie. The area holds some of the best blooming spring ephemeral plants in Chicago.
Throughout, you can find public artworks “Perch – Preen” and “Flock.” Artist Margot MacMahon created the sculptures out of carved and painted wood, depicting birds balanced atop tree branches.
Columbus Park Events
Jensen intended the park to host events. He created a Players Green for performances. Today, visitors enjoy basketball, soccer and football games held here. Jensen’s Refectory building hosts senior events and programming. After school programming and summer camps are held at the field house.
Columbus Park hosts other family-friendly events throughout the year. The Refectory hosts concerts even in cooler months, and in the summer Columbus Park is popular for Movies in the Park and Chicago’s Night Out in the Park events. Chicago Shakespeare Theater also holds performances at the park.
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