The U.S. government once used a grand Kenwood mansion to house people who were deemed national security threats.
Unlike internment camps outside the city, the former detention center sits at the corner of 48th Street and Ellis Avenue in a residential neighborhood, where many of the grand old mansions from Kenwood’s early 20th century still stand.
The house has an enormous living room lined with wood wainscoting and with beams and chandeliers hanging above. Stained-glass windows hang above the staircase, and on the top floor is a steep-roofed ballroom.
Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin talks about the mansion’s unusual history.
A South Side mansion
In the 1890s, Kenwood was Chicago’s most stylish neighborhood, and affluent families built mansions on its blocks. The house at 4800 S. Ellis Ave. was built in 1892 for Edward C. Potter — an executive in a Chicago steel company that would later become part of U.S. Steel — and his wife.
Architect Charles S. Frost, who also designed Navy Pier, created the salmon-colored brick mansion in a grand, double-turreted style. Frost and his firm, Frost Granger, were responsible for designing more than 120 buildings in Chicago and other cities, such as the Metra stations in Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, and Glencoe. They also designed the Morgan Park branch library at 111th Street and Hoyne Avenue.
From family home to detention center
In 1943, the 12,000-square-foot house was used by the Immigration & Naturalization Service as an “enemy alien detention center.” It housed about 35 men at a time, and for most, it was a temporary stop to a military-run internment camp located outside of the city, like north suburban Fort Sheridan.
Along with putting about 100,000 Japanese in camps, the U.S. government also rounded up about 8,500 Germans, Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians. Some were questioned and released, and some were sent back to their home countries.
One family’s story
In the Fuhr family, the two older sons, Julius and Eberhard, were taken to Chicago and housed at 4800 S. Ellis Ave., while the parents and youngest son were sent to an internment camp at Crystal City, Texas.
Eberhard Fuhr, who’s now 92 years old and lives in Palatine, said the brothers were kept at South Ellis Avenue from March 1942 through July 1942. He said they were then sent to join their parents at the Texas camp. He said the house was filled with about 30 cots and had pingpong tables in the mansion’s ballroom on the top floor.
Fuhr said he spent a large amount of his time in the Kenwood mansion just waiting for whatever came next. He was assigned to work in the yard, which is now surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence, and he remembered opening a door of the coach house, expecting to find garden tools, but instead found the guards’ stockpile of guns and ammunition.
After he was transferred to Texas in 1943, it was almost four years before Eberhard Fuhr and his family were released from government custody. President Harry Truman wanted to deport most of the detainees. But ultimately, the Senate Judiciary Committee stopped that idea, and the Fuhr family was released in April 1947.
Cook County records show the house was again used as a single-family home by 1986. It’s now owned by a local family.