As a little experiment here in Garden Variety, every now and then I'll take a closer look at an individual who has broken ground in the field of gardening; landscape visionaries, if you will. Today, I'm shining a spotlight on Jens Jenson, a landscape designer who is often called "the dean of the Prairie style." The Prairie style of landscape architecture features native plants, natural-looking "prairie rivers," waterfalls, stonework (such as circular stone benches), winding paths and open vistas.
Jens Jensen was born in Dybbol, Denmark on September 13, 1860, and emigrated to the United States with his fiancé in 1884. He worked briefly in Florida and Iowa before settling in Chicago. He is probably best known for his work in Chicago's Columbus and Humboldt parks, but Jensen also left his mark on Garfield and Douglas parks, among others. Jensen is also credited with the establishment of the Cook County Forest Preserve system in Illinois. But the work of Jensen was not limited to landscape design. He has also been described as “an urban visionary, a social reformer, and a conservationist.” Jensen was even a published author. His memoir, Siftings, described as a “midwestern Walden,” was first published in 1939 and reprinted in 1990. Jensen also wrote a philosophical book called The Clearing, which was published in 1949.
Jensen spent much of his free time exploring Chicago and the neighboring countryside, becoming familiar with the native plants and wildflowers of the region. Along with this familiarity grew an appreciation for the Midwestern prairies, wetlands, and forests. Growing up in Scandinavia and Germany had not endeared Jensen to the formally bedded gardens that were popular at the time. He also recognized early on that many popular exotic plants did not perform well in the soil and climate found in Chicago.
Jensen’s affinity with the native landscape of the Midwest inspired his Prairie style, as he determined to recreate the natural landscape of the countryside in Chicago’s parks. Columbus Park, built between 1916 and 1920, is considered by many to be Jensen’s masterpiece. He took 144 acres of nondescript farm and woodland—originally a privately owned site called Warren’s Woods—and created one of the city’s most significant urban parks. Jensen’s design for the park included what he called a “prairie river,” changes of elevation that included river bluffs meant to emulate glacial ridges, bathing pools fed by two brooks, waterfalls, stone paths, an elevated player’s green, a large prairie or meadow at the park’s center, and a woodland border filled with native plants intended to attract birds.
Jensen was a hard man to miss with his “hypnotic” or “fiery” personality (depending on who you asked), and his distinctive red hair and matching handle-bar mustache (in later years, his hair turned white). He stood over six feet tall and favored somewhat flamboyant clothes. Jensen moved in illustrious circles and had notable clients with names like Ford and Armour; his work was recognized as brilliant in his lifetime. Despite this, Jensen was often short of funds.
Frank Lloyd Wright, another proponent of the Prairie style, was a friend of Jensen’s, collaborating with him on several projects. Although their visions were not always the same, in the 1930s both Jensen and Wright founded schools in Wisconsin to train students in their personal interpretations of the Prairie style. Jensen’s school, The Clearing Retreat, was established on his land in Door County’s Ellison Bay. The Clearing, founded the year after the death of Jensen’s wife, Anne Marie, was built on a limestone cliff called the Niagara Escarpment, on a wooded site overlooking Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. The Clearing still exists as a 130-acre retreat, now called The Clearing Folk School, where adults can “learn, reflect, and wonder” about nature, the arts and the humanities. Jensen died on October 1, 1951 at the age of 91.
Jens Jensen by Robert E. Grese
Chicago Gardens by Cathy Jean Maloney