History of the Park District of Oak Park
The Park District of Oak Park has had a long and proud history of acquiring and developing green space and offering recreation opportunities for the residents of Oak Park. Established in 1912, the 5 elected commissioners who made up the first Park Board purchased the land now known as Scoville Park for $135,637. This park, designed by Jens Jensen, an internationally reknowned landscape artist, remains the “Village Green” today having been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior on November 21, 2002. It is the site of the World War I monument unveiled on November 11, 1925 in the presence of General C.G. Dawes, Vice-President of the United States.
In 1918 a “Small Parks Commission” was appointed by the Village Board to ensure that Oak Park children had a place to “enjoy and practice organized outdoor sports.” They became the Oak Park Playground Board in 1920 and began to levy a tax in 1921 to “equip, conduct and maintain playgrounds.” This Board went on to purchase land for playgrounds and eventually built neighborhood centers, named after prominent children’s authors, where organized recreation programs were provided. John S. Van Bergen, an Oak Park resident, designed many of the neighborhood recreation centers built by the Playground Commission.
Most of the land now owned by the Park District of Oak Park was purchased during the first two decades of the Park District’s existence and mainly used for passive recreational activities. A conservatory was erected in 1929 supplying flowers for the community flower beds as well as hosting seasonal flower shows which are still held today. The Oak Park Conservatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior on March 8, 2005.
In 1939 the Park District bought the property now known as Mills Park from the Herbert Mills Family. Historic Pleasant Home, designated a historic landmark in 1972, is located on this property. In 1947 the Henry W. Austin Family donated Austin Gardens to the Park District. Sometimes referred to as “the secret garden” this beautiful park has been home to Festival Theatre, the Midwest's oldest professional theatre devoted to outdoor performances of the classics, since 1975. Cheney House (now known as Cheney Mansion) was presented as a gift to the Park District in 1975 although it remained the private residence of Elizabeth Cheney until her death in 1985. Cheney Mansion was designed by Charles E. White, Jr. in 1913 and boasts many handsome reception rooms, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and separate servants’ quarters. The two acres of beautifully-landscaped grounds also include a coach house and greenhouse.
For many years the Park District and Village Playground Commission operated side by side in serving the recreation needs of Oak Park residents when, in 1980, a new intergovernmental agreement merged the Recreation Department with the Park District. In 1990 the Park District became the sole provider of government-sponsored parks and recreation in Oak Park. At that time the Park District assumed the operation and maintenance of the Village-owned recreation centers.
In the late 1990’s, Commonwealth Edison Co. and Nicor Gas Inc. notified the Park District that a former manufactured gas plant was located below ground surface at Barrie Park. This site became enrolled in the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Voluntary Site Remediation Program. Park clean-up commenced in 2000, the largest project of its kind, and restoration of the park was completed in fall 2005.
Since 2000, the Park District Board and Staff have been focused on park planning and renewal. The voters of Oak Park successfully passed a referendum in April 2005 providing much needed funding to “Renew Our Parks.” Park site master plans have been completed for all 18 parks since that time and several park renovation projects have been completed.
In 2006, the Village transferred the titles of five of the seven recreation centers to the Park District and a 99 year use lease for the two remaining centers has been established due to underground water reservoirs located on these properties. Throughout its existence the Park District has maintained its long history of providing quality recreation programs to the residents of Oak Park.
In 2012, over 2,800 recreation programs were offered and nearly 27,000 participants enjoyed these recreational experiences. The Park District celebrated its 100th birthday in 2012 with a variety of community events throughout the year. In 2012 the Park District also introduced a new mission statement, “In partnership with the community, we enrich lives by providing meaningful experiences through programs, parks, and facilities.”
On the site of a former Aldi grocery store, the Park District opened the Gymnastics and Recreation Center in fall 2013. The following year Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex was officially reopened after an 18-month renovation project which lengthened the ice arena to regulation size, added 2 multi-purpose rooms and a meeting room, replaced the pool deck and added a water play area among many other new amenities.
In 2015, the Park District was recognized with the most prestigious award in the parks and recreation field, the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management. In addition to the Gold Medal, the District joined the ranks of elite park and recreation agencies and departments across the country by earning accreditation through the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). The Park District is only one of four park and recreation agencies in the State of Illinois to win the Gold Medal and earn both State (2014) and National Accreditation.
The Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center, a Platinum LEED facility, opened in 2016. Numerous sustainability efforts were initiated this year culminating in the District's receipt of the IAPD Best of the Best Green Initiatives Award. The Park District worked in cooperation with numerous governmental entities and community organizations to install all-weather fields at Julian and Brooks Middle Schools.
The Longfellow Park soccer field was recognized as the 2017 National Field of the Year from the Sports Turf Managers Association.
From 2015 through 2018 solar panels were installed at five Park District facilities including the Oak Park Conservatory, Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center, Ridgeland Common, and Longfellow and Fox Centers. $118,403 in grant dollars was secured for five sustainability projects completed in 2018 and $181,450 annual savings through our sustainability efforts was realized.