The Olympia Fields Park District is an autonomous unit of government and was organized in February, 1956. At that time, the Village population was approximately 350. The Park District has nearly the same boundaries as the Village with the exception of the Graymoor subdivision, which is not in the Park District, and a number of minor parcels and a strip center which are in the Park District but not in the Village. The Park District is governed by a five member board, with the members elected at large for six-year staggered terms.
Photo © Van Inwegen Photography
The Park District leased its first 10 acre park, Sergeant Means Park, from the Village in 1966. The site was named in memory of an Olympia Fields police officer killed in 1967. Elliott Woods Park (6.8 acres) was donated in 1967 by Mr. Dana Elliott. Over the years the Park District has expanded to encompass 11 park sites totaling 142 acres. This increase in park acreage is primarily the result of individual land donations and of land acquisition utilizing federal and state land acquisition grant monies. Only one 10 acre parcel (previously known as Cull's Nursery) was purchased without outside funding or a donation.
The Park District has conducted recreation programs since its inception in 1956. In the early years, the Park Board of Commissioners organized and administered the programs. The Park District hired its first Director of Parks and Recreation in 1973. The District then began renting office space, first in Tolentine Center until 1976, and then in Governors Office Park until 1994, when the renovation of the farm house at Sgt. Means Park into the Administration Center was completed.
In 1973, the Park District became one of the charter members of the South Suburban Special Recreation Association. Said Association has expanded to encompass seven park districts and three recreation departments. In 1985, Olympia Fields Park District developed one of the first accessible playgrounds in the Chicago area at Bicentennial Park.
In 1978, the Olympia Fields and Homewood-Flossmoor Park Districts jointly purchased and established the Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center. This 37 acre park site is very innovative with its therapy gardens, adventure center, and environmental education and outdoor recreation programs. In 1987, Irons Oaks received the "Take Pride in America" National Award. In 1990, Irons Oaks was the recipient of a special Land and Water Conservation Fund "Take Pride in America" State Award. Both awards were focused on volunteer efforts to conserve and steward the land and its natural resources. In 1993, 2.8 acres of woods on the corner of Western & Vollmer were added to this innovative park site.
"A New American Green" Design Competition was initiated in October, 1990. This followed the purchase of the 10 acre Cull's Nursery site in 1985 and the donation of the existing 10 acre Sgt. Means Park site from the Village of Olympia Fields. The combined 20 acre community park site with its three historic buildings became the focus of the National "New American Green" Design Competition. The competition was extremely successful and culminated with the jury selection of the competition winners on April 24, 1992. A total of 564 persons from the United States, Canada, China, Russia, West Germany, Italy, Australia and Puerto Rico paid $85 to register for the competition. Many from the United States and Canada visited the site, toting video cameras, as part of their preparations. 228 of these registrants actually submitted designs. These designs were represented by 34 states and 3 countries. The jury believed that the winning design met Olympia Fields' needs and requirements spelled out in the Competition Program for it went beyond what is merely pleasant and acceptable, it offered a new focal point for the community. As a result of the competition, the Park District not only secured an award winning design for its new 20 acre community park, it also received tremendous press coverage. Front page articles appeared in both the Chicago Tribune, Star, and Daily Southtown newspapers. Feature articles and news articles on the competition appeared in Competitions, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Illinois Parks and Recreation, and National Parks & Recreation magazines. An exhibition of the winners traveled to five states and to two national conferences. Following the Design Competition, work immediately began to further develop and implement the design. Phase I of the design was completed in June 1994. In 1994, the Barn Meeting Center received an award from the Structural Engineering Association for Innovative Design. In 1995, the Illinois Park and Recreation Association awarded Sgt. Means Park its "Outstanding Park and Facility Award". The park received the Park and Recreation Association's "Outstanding Facility Award" for the Barn Meeting Center.
As its fifth award, the park won the International Design Magazine "1997 Design Distinction Award in the Environments Category". As its sixth and most prestigious award, Sgt. Means Park won the American Institute of Architects' "2000 Honor Award for Outstanding Architecture". This is the AIA's highest award for excellence in design with only 15 projects throughout the world receiving this prestigious award.
In 1999, the Olympia Fields Park District received the prestigious IAPD/IPRA "Distinguished Agency Award" for the District's dedication to all citizens of the Olympia Fields Park District in providing leisure service opportunities. Olympia Fields Park District was only one of 30 districts within the state to attain this award and first small park district to do so.
In 2000, construction began on the new Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center which was completed and opened to the public in 2001.
The Olympia Fields Park District continues to strive to preserve open space in the form of quality parks and to provide safe and accessible quality recreation programs and facilities to ensure a higher quality of life for its residents for today and for the future.