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Prophet of the Prairie

Jens Jensen's prairiescapes

Landscape Architecture

April 1992

Jens Jensen, often considered the Frank Lloyd Wright of landscape architecture in the U.S., lived and practiced in Illinois for most of his life. A renewal of interest in his work in the 1990s saw many projects, public and private, restored after years of neglect. Many of these were located on Chicago's North Shore, where I lived from 1994 to 2002.


I summarized the state of things Jensen for the national magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architectsa piece in which (good professional that I am) I concealed my enduring skepticism about his work.


"Jens Jensen is still a dominant figure today," says Christopher Vernon, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. "He's taken on the proportions of the Middle West's Frederick Law Olmsted."


There was fine landscape design in the Midwest as early as the 1860s, but Jensen created the first midwestern mode by expressing English pastoralism with a distinctly regional accent. Working with native plants, he recalled the region's meandering streams, wide horizons (which were mimicked in layered plantings) and the sun-and-shade contrasts of grove and meadow plant communities. We call this the Prairie style.


Stephen Christy, ASLA, suggests that Jensen's legacy does not lie solely in his designs, which were hardly unique for the time. He was also an effective proselytizer, an early advocate of neighborhood parks who also spearheaded the preservation of the Indiana dunes and the creation of Chicago's Cook County Forest Preserve system. "He has two messages for us," says Christy. "One is his understanding of what now is known as bioregionalism. The other is his emphasis on nature and community, or rather nature as the basis of community."


Chicago is home to his great public spaces. He got his start as a laborer with that city's old West Parks System in 1884. The Danish immigrant rose to become a park superintendent and eventually the system's landscape architect. Among the results are Humboldt and Columbus parks, both recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places and acknowledged as masterpieces.


When not working in Chicago—he left the district twice, in 1900 and in 1920, having what local pols regarded as an excess of principle—Jensen built a varied private practice. His layout of the Racine, Wisconsin, park system is admired still. Many of his commissions were for private grounds, such as Henry Ford's Fair Lane estate in Dearborn, Michigan.

Jensen was especially busy in Chicago's burgeoning suburbs. He collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright in Riverside. At Ravinia, Illinois, near Highland Park on Lake Michigan's shores (where in 1908 Jensen built his own summer home and studio), he drew the 1913 landscape plan for Rosewood, the estate of philanthropist and businessman Julius Rosenwald, and another for the estate of stocks millionaire A. G. Becker.


After Jensen died at age 91 in 1951, it looked as if his legacy would die too. In Chicago, his parks were vandalized—not by the public but by parks administrators with relentlessly recreational agendas. Many of the suburban estates were subdivided or sold to unsympathetic new owners. His message was misunderstood even by his admirers. As a result, such parks as Mahoney Farm Park in suburban Kenilworth were allowed to become overun with Siberian elm and wild grape in mistaken devotion to Jensen's "naturalistic" principles.

Though ignored for decades, Jensen was never quite forgotten. Alfred Caldwell, himself an important Chicago Park District designer in the 1930s and longtime instructor at the Illinois Institute for Technology, worked as a young man as superintendent in Jensen's practice. Caldwell maintained a living link to that design tradition. John Vinci, a prominent Chicago architect who studied under Caldwell at IIT in the 1950s, recalls, "He didn't teach landscape design, but we absorbed it by osmosis."


The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, reports growing numbers of inquiries from landscape architects curious about his work. Jensen's elevation to regional icon was confirmed when New York postmodern artist Ronald Jones borrowed motifs from Jensen and surrealist painter Rene Magritte for the new Pritzker Park in Chicago's Loop. Jones refers to Jensen in the meandering paths that connect two "council rings" or circular stone benches meant as venues for storytelling. The park even boasts what the artist calls a "Grand Meadow"—a symbolic addition, given that the site measures less than half an acre.


It is not only Jensen's reputation that is being restored. The landscape at The Clearing is being rehabilitated. In downtown Ravinia, his memorial to Augusta Rosenwald, wife of Julius, has been repaired, and his original street plantings were recalled in a new streetscape plan that preservationists insisted be done in the "Jensen design idiom." A Jensen landscape at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, is also being revived.


At Fair Lane, the University of Michigan has reopened cluttered river views and rebuilt a stone dam and a river walk as part of continuing restoration at the Dearborn campus. Plans are afoot to use a greenhouse on the property to propagate historically accurate plants. Moreover, the university may screen Fair Lane from future campus growth with a planted buffer. At Mahoney Farm Park, volunteers held benefit dinners and plant sales in order to restore paths, council rings, and stone birdbaths built in 1933 in that wildlife sanctuary.


Some private landscapes are being rescued by new owners. Restoration has resumed at Highland Park's Becker estate, which Jensen designed in collaboration with Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. Stephen Christy, director of the Lake Forest Open Lands Association, describes these nearly eight acres on Lake Michigan's shore as "one of the last of the big ones still left." They feature sun meadows, ravines, bluff sides, and formal gardens, all of which are being reclaimed from years of neglect.


The Chicago Park District is busiest of all. Humboldt Park's sunken rose garden is being restored. So is the Flower Hall and garden at Douglas Park. At Columbus Park, poor maintenance and a 1950s expressway took their toll, yet Jensen's characteristic stratified stonework waterfalls have been restored, and his "players' hill"—an exposed, elevated clearing suitable for outdoor theater—may soon again be the site of masques or other entertainments. Restoration of the park's council rings and children's play area is just beginning, and the feasibility of building a reduced version of his filled-in "Prairie River" lagoon is being discussed.


Purism usually takes a back seat to practicality in these rescue efforts. In the case of Chicago's Jensen parks, the sheer scale means that park district staffers must concentrate on restoring what's left rather than reconstructing what's been destroyed. Original plans for other projects have been lost, or Jensen's choices of plant varieties are no longer available in the nursery trade. Times have changed, so that while one can restore a Jensen structure, one can't always restore its precise function; in Jones' Pritzker Park, the council rings that Jensen meant to be settings for actual community have been reduced to a mere metaphor for community.


Having started out as a gardener, Jensen was a superb plantsman, but while Christy notes that Jensen emphasized ecology in his landscapes, his designs were not self-sustaining: "He wasn't really that clear about how landscapes maintained themselves." Non-native invaders like mulberries are being removed, and grass and wooded areas have been subjected to regeneration by fire. Because oak trees do not reproduce naturally in deep shade, overgrown areas are being opened up. The larger intention, says Christy, is "to reintroduce the forces that shaped the landscape that he loved in the first place."


Perhaps unconsciously, modern practitioners borrow from Jensen, yet no one designs in exactly his style. Native plants are usually chosen because of their economic rather than their aesthetic appeal. (Much of Sears, Roebuck's new 708-acre headquarters complex outside Chicago will be planted in low-maintenance prairie plants.) And while Jensen is still taught in the Midwest's leading schools of landscape architecture, most architects are unlikely to know him. "Architecture and landscape architecture are going in the wrong directions," says John Vinci. "Architects are taking a right turn toward classicism, and the landscapes being applied to these buildings are anti-Jensen."


It is a widely held misapprehension that a Jensen landscape requires huge amounts of land. (As one East Coast designer puts it, it's hard to get a sweeping vista on a quarter-acre lot.) Jensen himself was capable of good work on projects both smaller and more formal than his famous prairies. One notable example is the Shakespeare Garden on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Illinois. Designed by Jensen in 1915 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, its two-tiered hawthorn hedge provides an unexpected sense of shelter for a garden that measures only 70 by 120 feet. "It's a very formal garden," explains Elizabeth Schroeder, former chairwoman of the Garden Club of Evanston, which has maintained the garden for more than 70 years, "but it still has Jensen's characteristic central opening and native shrubs, and the interplay of light and shadow on the walking path is lovely."


One would think that Jensen's ideas would be linked so intimately with the ecology and landforms of the Midwest that they, like a beautiful but sensitive shrub, would not flourish outside their natural range. Indeed, Jensen feuded with colleagues from the East, who pigeonholed the Prairie style as a solely regional, indeed parochial, design achievement.


William Tishler, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin, believes otherwise. "As America becomes more homogenized, especially at its urban fringes, all places are beginning to look alike," he says. "I see Jensen's legacy as having broader significance. The message for other places and other regions is to look at their own regions to help support the genius loci." ●




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Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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The Encyclopedia of Chicago


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Illinois Great Places

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Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

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The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

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Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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