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 renowned 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.
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. The main use of this property was 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.
Timeline of the Park District
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. At the National Recreation Congress in October 1926, Oak Park won national recognition for programs such as the “Boys’ Playground Band”, a “Shelter House Design Contest” won by Oak Parker John S. Van Bergen, “Murals Contest”, “Junior Art Museum”, “Library on Wheels”, as well as playground landscaping and beautification. Mr. Van Bergen designed many of the neighborhood recreation centers built by the Playground Commission.
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 since 1975, the Midwest’s oldest professional theatre devoted to outdoor performances of the classics. Cheney House (now known as Cheney Mansion) was presented as 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.” Seventeen park site master plans have been completed since that time and the final park site plan for Stevenson Park will be finalized in 2011. Nine park renovation projects have been completed and the renovation of Taylor Park is currently underway in summer 2011. Improvements to Mills Park and Cheney Mansion are slated to begin in fall 2011. The restoration of the Scoville Park World War I Monument was completed in fall 2010 and a rededication of the “Peace Triumphant” Monument was attended by hundreds of residents on Sunday, November 7, 2010. Major renovations have also been made to the Oak Park Conservatory including the addition of the Rubinstein Memorial Garden which was officially opened on July 9, 2011. Over $1.6 million in grant monies have been secured since the passing of the referendum to support the Park District’s park renovation efforts.
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.
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.” Jan Arnold was hired to lead the Park District and Gary Balling retired after 12 years of service to the Community.
The Gymnastics and Recreation Center opened on Saturday, October 5, 2013, serving over 1,000 gymnasts from Oak Park and the surrounding area. Scoville Park was renovated with a $1.6 million PARC grant. The District also completed master plan reviews for Maple and Rehm Pool. The District started park improvement work on Lindberg Park which included new ball diamonds, tennis court, picnic pavilion, playground and continuous walking loop. The park reopened in 2014. Additionally, the Oak Park Conservatory’s Elsie Jacobson Children’s Garden was constructed with funds from a Museum Grant and funding from the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory.
In 2014, the Park District of Oak Park received the Illinois Distinguished Accreditation. After many years of planning and 15 months of construction, the Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex opened on June 6, 2014, featuring a regulation-sized ice arena, a synthetic turf field and a renovated outdoor pool. We also renovated Fox and Longfellow parks and conducted master plan reviews for Carroll, Field, Fox and Longfellow Parks. The District renovated Carroll Park with the addition of a rock garden, new diamond and irrigation. Additionally, the greenhouse at Cheney Mansion was renovated and repurposed for event space. The Park District purchased 947 Ridgeland to use for exterior storage, a much needed addition to the park system.
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 Park District also conducted a feasibility study to build a Community Recreation Center. Additionally, a very special partnership between the Park District and School District 97, Good Heart Work Smart Foundation, AYSO, Chicago Edge Soccer and Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball allowed for the construction of all-weather fields at Julian and Brooks Middle Schools. The Park District renovated its Administrative Center to expand Parks and Planning.
In 2016, the Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center opened. The Park District conducted four master plan updates to include Cheney Mansion, the Conservatory, Rehm Park and Euclid Park. The Park District renovated Maple Park to include new ball diamonds, playground, picnic pavilion, and continuous walking loops. Solar installations were also added to RCRC and Longfellow Center as well as a cistern for irrigation at Longfellow Park.
2017 was a year of recognitions for the Park District. The Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center received LEED Platinum certification and Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex received LEED Gold certification. Ridgeland Common is the first LEED certified ice and aquatics complex in Illinois. The Park District also received the J. Robert Havlick Award for Innovation in Local Government from the Alliance for Innovation and Longfellow Park soccer field was recognized as the 2017 National Field of the Year from the Sports Turf Managers Association. In 2018, the Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center was identified as one of Illinois’ 200 Great Places by the Illinois Council of The American Institute of Architects (AIA Illinois). The Park District renovated Euclid park with new tennis courts, playground and a walking loop. The District continued adding solar at Fox Park and installed another cistern at Field Park for irrigation.
2018 the Park District completed a new strategic plan for 2019-2020 as well as received many honors to include a Cavalcade Award for our Green Initiatives and IAPD’s Best Green Practice Award. Additionally, the Park District added solar arrays at Fox Center, 218 Madison, and the Conservatory as well as expanded the solar at RCRC from 100 kHw to 260 kHw. The Park District received a $100,000 grant from Green Mountain Sun Energy to install solar, water harvesting, compost tea and honey bees at the Conservatory. The District also completed master plan reviews for Wenonah Park, Scoville Park, Lindberg Park and Randolph Park. The District has received over $5 million combined in OSLAD and PARC grant since the referendum passed in 2005. The District reached its goal of 50% earned revenue to 50% taxes in 2018, with a 51%/49% split.
In 2019, the Park District of Oak Park earned the Illinois Distinguished Accreditation Award, for the 10th year in a row, the GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award, and for the 4th year in a row, the Park District was recognized with IAPD’s Best of the Best Award for Green Practices. In addition, the 90th Birthday Party was held for the Oak Park Conservatory. The 5th Anniversary of the RCRC renovations was celebrated in July. The 122-year-old front porch steps were restored at Pleasant Home in late fall. Six dedicated pickleball courts were installed at Barrie Center. The Park District received grants for the renovation of Stevenson Park ($400,000 through the OSLAD grant), the expansion of the Carroll Center ($577,000 through the Clean Energy Community Foundation), the purchasing, installation, and staffing of a computer lab at Dole Center ($30,000 grant from the Kott Memorial Trust), as well as two safety grants (for $2,500). SmartRec by Amilia was introduced as the new registration system. The Park District also conducted a merger with the Senior Citizen Center of Oak Park River Forest.
In 2020, the Park District of Oak Park had many achievements despite the challenges that COVID-19 brought to us. We realigned programs and camps to meet the continuously changing State of Illinois COVID guidelines to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our participants while continuing to offer innovative and exciting programs and events for all residents. This included the introduction of pre-registrations to many of our activities to socially distance groups and adhere to capacity guidelines. In addition, all other programs went virtual. Online shopping was provided at the Conservatory for plant sales with convenient curbside pickup. Free DIY activities were introduced for fun projects to do at home. A Petite Wedding package was introduced which was also well-received. The Park District also assumed responsibilities for all rentals at Pleasant Home. Permit application were moved to online, as well as in-person customer service locations were closed, and program registration support was also conducted online. The major initiative was the launch of the design process for the Community Recreation Center. Awards and recognitions received by the Park District include the CAPRA reaccreditation, GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award for the 11th year in a row, the GFOA Certificate of Achievement for the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the 8th year in a row. IAPD’s Best of the Best Award for Green Practices for the 5th year in a row. Executive Director Jan Arnold received the IAPD Professional of the Year Award. Program Manager Mike Loszack was recognized as the IPRA Young Professional of the Year. The completion of the park renovation project for Stevenson Park was done. Six fitness stations and intergeneration playground equipment were installed at Randolph Park. One roll hill, swings, and steppers were installed as part of the Wenonah Park renovation project. Two new tennis courts were constructed at Rehm Park. New bike repair stations were installed at Scoville, RCRC, Field, Longfellow, and Barrie Park. In partnership with the Village of Oak Park, a bioswale was installed at Stevenson Park. In addition, the Park District was awarded a grant for the renovation of Rehm Park ($400,000 through OSLAD), a grant for the installation of a geothermal system at Pleasant Home ($421,500 through the Illinois Museum Grant), and a grant was award through OSLAD for the purchase of the property adjacent to Carroll Park.
The Park District of Oak Park welcomed 2021 with vigor and hope that the pandemic would slow and mitigations would loosen. While Covid-19 continued to challenge us, our commitment to serving the community remained steadfast. Sustainability remained at the forefront of operations as solar panels were installed on the roof of two more Park District buildings. The installation of a Geothermal HVAC system commenced at Pleasant Home which included the installation of 12-500’ underground wells. Two new highly efficient electric heat pumps were installed at Field and Longfellow Centers. A new park green space was added as part of the Carroll Center expansion. Two new playgrounds with inclusive and natural play features were installed in the parks. Both Rehm and Ridgeland pools were opened for the first time since 2019. Rehm Park playground was renovated and opened in the fall. Through the initiative of the Parks Foundation, 75% of the capital funds needed to building the Community Recreation Center was secured. In addition, in collaboration with the Parks Foundation, the Tribute Brick Pavers program was launched to supports the capital campaign for the CRC. The Park District was also one of the four finalists for the National Recreation and Parks Gold Medal Award. The Park District received the 2021 Platinum International Aquatic Safety Award from Jeff Ellis & Associates. For the 13th year in a row, the Park District received the GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award, with special recognition for performance measures from the Government Finance Officers Association. The Park District also received the award for the Comprehensive Annual Financial report for the 9th year in a row and the IAPD Best Green Practices for the 6th year in a row.