Landscape architect Clifford Miller and historian David Wendell are standing at the edge of a clearing in a wooded yard in Highland Park having a polite disagreement about whether this is a good example of the genius of Jens Jensen. Wendell thinks it is. He points to the open area, the curving lines, the stepped border culminating in a row of evergreens. Miller looks at the same manicured lawn and border, the same wall of hemlock and Austrian pine, and takes exception. “All of that is new,” he says. “The majority of the plants are not native. The majority are organized in ways that are a little too cute.” Turning to a small patch of land near the garage, he adds, “This is Jensen. This is the rambling looseness and irregularity of a Jensen-esque landscape.” The yard belongs to the house and studio where Jensen, creator of Columbus Park, the Garfield Park Conservatory, and the Cook County forest preserves, dreamed up some of the nation’s most celebrated gardens. The patch, all wildflower foliage and shrubs, looks like something the current gardener forgot.
Jens Jensen was born in Denmark in 1860, the son of a wealthy farmer. He was trained in agriculture and attended a Danish folk school that emphasized man’s profound connection to the soil. He fell in love with a pretty “town girl,” Anne Marie Hansen; when his parents objected to her social status the two eloped to the United States, where they married in 1884. They worked on a couple of farms in Florida and Iowa but had settled in Chicago by 1886. That was the year Jensen took a job as a lowly sweeper in the potting sheds of Chicago’s West Park System and found his destiny. Just two years later he was permitted to redesign a corner of Union Park. Using only local plants, he created what he claimed was “the first natural garden in any large park in the country.” It caused a sensation and laid the roots for the Prairie School of landscape architecture.
In the mid-19th century, park planners debated the relative merits of formal French gardens and their more natural English counterparts. Parks in the United States tended to be designed after the continental model, with rigid geometric patterns and exotic plants. Jensen had grown up on the parks of Europe and hated their pomposity. He was enchanted by the prairies and forests of his adopted American midwest, and especially by the edges where prairie and forest met. Ironically, he manipulated the land as much or more than his predecessors–pumping in water and hauling rock to build “rivers” from scratch, transplanting wildflowers to man-made meadows, attempting to stop time in dynamic ravine communities–but the effort was meant to be invisible. When his artful interpretations of natural landscapes were done, Miller says, “Jensen wanted you to think he was never there.”
Outspoken and charismatic, Jensen rose rapidly in the park system and fell just as fast. In 1890 he was made superintendent of Union Park, and about five years later added Garfield and Humboldt parks to his jurisdiction. But in 1900 he was fired for refusing to go along with the graft that, even in those days, was the way of getting along in Chicago. He set up a private practice in an office near the Art Institute just as Chicago’s merchant barons were beginning to build their palaces on the North Shore. It didn’t hurt that he had an established reputation, a commanding appearance, and a gift for public speaking. The commissions tumbled in. His client list eventually included names like Armour, Rosenwald, McCormick, Ryerson, and Florsheim. When the Park District rehired him in 1905 (only to fire him again in 1920), he retained his private practice.
In 1908 Jensen bought four acres of wooded property in the Ravinia area of Highland Park, which he called the Clearing. He built a shingled summer home on it for his family and created a landscape that included two of his signature touches: the sunny opening that Miller and Wendell agree still has a Jensen-like shape, and a council ring of limestone slabs, still tucked into the side of a ravine. In 1918 he began using the summerhouse as his office. In the early 20s, when his daughter Edith and her husband (his pupil and successor, Marshall Johnson) moved into the house, he built a small studio on the edge of the ravine, near the garage. He worked in these tiny quarters until 1935, when he moved to Door County to found a “school of the soil” also called the Clearing. He died in 1951.
A two-day seminar, “Prairie 2000: Jens Jensen and the Prairie Garden,” will be presented this weekend by Oak Park’s Pleasant Home Foundation, with Wendell, Miller, and Jensen’s major biographers and scholars participating. It begins at 8 AM Saturday at the Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, and includes lectures, the opening of an exhibit of Jensen drawings at Pleasant Home, and a day of touring private and public Jensen sites in Oak Park, Riverside, Chicago, Kenilworth, Highland Park, and Lake Forest. The tour includes a stop at the grounds of the Jensen home and studio, now both private residences. Cost is $40 for the symposium; $45 for the tour; $10 for the exhibition opening; or $85 for all. Call 708-383-2654 for reservations. –Deanna Isaacs