Book Review: Prophet of the Prairie
Jens Jensen, Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens, by Robert Grese
Jens Jensen (1860-1951) was one of the dominant figures of the Prairie School of landscape architecture, which emphasized the beauty of native plants and natural landscapes found in the American Midwest.
Grese’s biography, published in 1992, gives a fascinating account of Jensen’s career, his design style, and his philosophy. But it also places Jensen as someone who was very much at the center of other Progressive Era movements such as conservation and urban planning.
Jensen was born to a wealthy farming family in a part of Denmark conquered by Germany while he was a child. He had a deep dislike of formalism and aristocracy, something he may have learned as a draftee in the German army. After his time as a soldier he emigrated to the United States.
Though renowned as a landscape architect, Jensen had no formal training in the field. He started out as a Chicago city parks laborer in 1885, and did his first garden design in 1888. Eventually he became Superintendent of the West Park System, which included Humboldt, Garfield and Columbus Parks.
Jensen was a pioneer in the use of native plants, some of which were widely viewed as roadside weeds. He loved burr oak and sugar maple; hawthorn and prairie crabapple; asters and goldenrod. Jensen was ahead of his time in understanding that certain plant species grew together in botanical communities, and he used that knowledge in designing his landscapes.
He was more than a plantsman, however. His designs weaved together compositions of shadow and light, woodlands and open ground. He used stonework and the structure of plants to echo the broad horizon of the prairie.
Jensen was an unapologetic idealist. He believed good landscape design provided moral uplift and a foundation for democracy.
He disliked Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan as too grandiose and symmetrical – unrelated to the natural landscape and unconcerned with the well-being of ordinary people.
“It is too often a show city;” he wrote of Burnham’s plan. “It is at once the city of palaces and of box-like houses where humanity is packed together like cattle in railroad cars. To build civic centers and magnificent boulevards, leaving the greatest part of the city in filth and squalor … is to put on a false front …”
Jensen cared passionately that people should use his landscapes, and he believed that park staff should be closely tied to the communities they served.
For example, he built pools in Columbus Park with the goal of giving city children something akin to the experience of a rural swimming hole. The pools were surrounded by stonework and native plants, and were used by thousands of children.
Council rings – semi-circular stone benches surrounding a fire pit – were a signature feature of many of his landscapes. They were intended to be places of storytelling, music and discussion – of building community.
Similarly, he liked to include “player’s greens” – outdoor theaters for drama and dance, both amateur and professional.
In 1915 Jensen sponsored a Pageant of the Year at Garfield Park. Some 1,400 children and adults took part in telling the story of the seasons, while another 30,000 looked on.
A contemporary described the beginning of the pageant: “First came the girls in bright dresses carrying flowers – they were the garden flowers. Then other children came as butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and grasshoppers. All danced and skipped merrily about the green, with the light-heartedness of Spring.”
Jensen crusaded against corruption in the park system and was close to Jane Addams and other Chicago reformers of the Progressive era.
In 1921 Jensen left the city parks to earn his living as a private landscape architect. His distaste for aristocracy did not prevent him from becoming friends with some of the wealthiest people in Chicago (notably Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck), and these friends provided the foundation of his practice. In the 1920s it became quite fashionable to have an estate designed by Jens Jensen.
Jensen had mixed feelings about his clients, however. “Some know too much or have an idea that they do, and these are better left alone,” he wrote. “Then there are those who want a garden because his neighbor has one.”
Henry Ford was one of Jensen’s most notable clients, and he got along moderately well with the auto magnate. However, Jensen was angered when Clara Ford decided to plunk a formal rose garden in the middle of what was supposed to be a meadow.
Jensen considered himself an artist and he did not like people messing with his art. One unfortunate client made the mistake of asking for advice about changing a garden he had designed for her. Jensen wrote a stinging reply, concluding with: “It’s your garden, so you can do anything you like. Don’t say I ever helped you do anything.”
While in private practice Jensen was able to devote more time to another of his passions: conservation. Jensen was an avid joiner and creator of organizations, the Prairie Club being a notable example.
This club had its origins in Jensen’s own hikes in the natural areas he loved. Eventually hundreds were joining him, including many leading architects, naturalists, artists, and others.
Members of the Prairie Club were leaders of the campaign to create the Cook County Forest Preserve system. They had hiked through many of the lands that would eventually be included in Preserves.
Jensen also organized Friends of Our Native Landscapes, which counted among its high-powered members the future Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. The Friends were largely responsible for the creation of the Indiana Dunes State Park, and helped create many State Parks in Illinois (including White Pines, Mississippi Palisades, and Apple River Canyon), and parks in Michigan and Wisconsin.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the great majority of Jensen’s landscapes are no longer with us. They were paved over, developed or re-designed beyond recognition.
Maintenance was often lacking, invasive plants ran wild, and technical expertise for preservation was limited. New owners, public and private, usually did not understand or appreciate Jensen’s designs, his aesthetic or environmental sensibilities.
The Shakespeare Garden on the campus of Northwestern University and the Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield, Illinois, are two Jensen landscapes that have survived reasonably intact. Grese’s book provides a detailed discussion of both, especially the Lincoln Memorial Garden.
In recent years, Jensen’s ideas have gained new influence. Native plants have become much more popular, and the idea of bringing naturalistic environments to urban areas is widely accepted. Our understanding of prairie ecology has improved, and designers like Piet Oudolf have made naturalistic landscapes more maintenance-friendly.
All these trends have intensified since the publication of Grese’s book, so they are not much included in his discussion of Jensen’s legacy. It is an impressive legacy, reflected in thousands of acres of public parks, in a few surviving gardens that Jensen designed himself – but most of all in naturalistic urban landscapes inspired by the principles that he championed.