The Elmhurst Park District was established on June 5, 1920 to meet the leisure and recreational needs of the community. Soon thereafter, negotiations were opened for the acquisition of the Wilder estate. The estate consisted of an undeveloped cow pasture to the north and the family home, gardens and clay tennis courts on the south. Original development of the gardens had begun much earlier in 1868 by Seth and Elizabeth Wadhams, who built their home, known as White Birch, along with a greenhouse and gardens. They planted numerous trees representing a variety of species to create a true garden spot in Elmhurst. The Park District acquisition of the Wilder property occurred in 1921, making it the first public park in Elmhurst. The Park District added the conservatory to the greenhouse in 1924, and the Wilder Park Conservatory then opened to the public.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, three new parks were established at Salt Creek, East End and Butterfield. The new East End Pool opened on June 26, 1937 with the “Grand Splash” of 750 youths who had lined up along the edge of the pool in readiness for its big moment. The pool was an immediate success for the District, with 1,200 people showing up on its second day. The first recreation programs were offered for children in 1942 and included baton, handicrafts, archery, baseball and ballet.
The early 1950s saw additional growth for the District as the Ben Allison Playground and Eldridge Park were opened. The Abbey was also established during this period as a place for teenagers to gather, but did not become a part of the Park District until 1964. During the decade of the 1960s, seven new parks were opened, including the York Commons Pool which was dedicated in 1967.
Perhaps the most significant decade in the Park District’s history was the 1970s when the District blossomed into a full-service agency. In 1971, voters approved a $3.9 million bond referendum for land acquisition and development. The majority of the District's present land was purchased during this time, along with new park development. Five new special facilities were also opened during this period. The Courts, an indoor tennis, racquetball and handball facility, opened in 1972. Sugar Creek Golf Course was the result of collaboration in the early 1970s between the Elmhurst Park District and the Village of Villa Park, who shared in the land acquisition and construction costs. The first Elmhurst Community Center opened its doors in 1979 at Eldridge School, leased from the School District. The Abbey Leisure Center opened its doors on St. Charles Road for senior citizen leisure programming in 1975 in recognition of this growing segment of the community’s population. The Depot on York Road was acquired from the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in 1971 and renovated by the Park District as a bicentennial project in 1975.
The 1980s and 1990s constituted a period of redevelopment and continued partnerships with other agencies. The Courts Plus expansion in 1990 provided an important collaboration with Elmhurst Memorial Health Care to provide fitness, rehabilitation, and health programs for the community. In 1992, the District won the coveted National Gold Medal Award presented to outstanding park and recreation agencies.
On September 6, 2003, the Elmhurst Park District opened its newest facility, the Joanne B. Wagner Community Center. This facility filled a great need for the community by providing a venue for indoor programming that is owned by the District. The redevelopment and opening of Berens Park and The Hub in 2004 came just in time for the District’s 85th anniversary. In 2003, the new Elmhurst Public Library opened at the north of end of Wilder Park following a land exchange agreement with the District and the City of Elmhurst and in 2007, the District received the keys to Wilder Mansion (former library) from the City, making its ownership official. The original 1860s home was remodeled without compromising its historic architectural features and provides an additional 14,000 square feet of multi-use space for the community.
In fall 2013, the historic Wilder Park Conservatory began a major restoration with the goal of preserving the structure and appearance while enhancing the user experience. The restoration, made possible in part by a $1.84 million State of Illinois PARC grant administered through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, provides for improved green technologies and efficiencies with the installation of HVAC components, glazing system, and the use of modern materials, reducing energy loss and improving growing space. The two greenhouses were replaced with a single aluminum structure and a state-of-theart propagating house. The restored Conservatory and new greenhouse are connected by an ADA-accessible vestibule that provides access to the Wilder Park Formal Gardens.
In 2016, The Playground for Everyone, the first fully-inclusive playground in Elmhurst, and one of the first in DuPage county, was built. In 2015, with the help and inspiration from Special Kids Day and the People for Elmhurst Parks Foundation, a vision for a different kind of playground emerged and the plans for a 100% accessible playground began—a playground where children of all abilities could play together, which includes state-of-the-art, sensory-rich structures that encourage play for children with mobility challenges and developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
The $600,000 Playground for Everyone would not have been possible without generous donations totaling $250,000 received from numerous community groups, an online crowd-funding campaign, individual donations and proceeds from the “Be a Kid Again” fundraiser held in February 2016.