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Reading 1: An American Garden

Only 7 miles from Chicago's bustling downtown is Columbus Park, a beautiful landscape of wildflowers, waterfalls, stepping stone paths, and a river. Although visitors might think this is a scenic natural site, it is actually the masterpiece of Jens Jensen (1860-1951), a landscape architect.

Jens Jensen was born in Slesvig, Denmark, but when he wanted to marry Anne Marie Hansen against his family's wishes, the young man decided it would be better if they immigrated to the United States. Following a brief time in Florida and Iowa, the couple moved to Illinois. Jensen fell in love with the flat stretches of prairie filled with colorful grasses and wildflowers. He later recalled:

It was on the train coming into Chicago, and through the car windows I saw silhouetted against the sky the delicate rose of a wild crab apple in early bloom. And when I was told it was a native tree, I said to myself, "That tree is a symbol of the beauty of this prairie landscape we have been passing through." . . . It and the native hawthorn, whose gray horizontal branches are typical of the rolling lands of this mid-country.¹

In 1885, Jensen began working as a street sweeper for Chicago's West Park Commission. In his free time, he began exploring undeveloped areas at the outskirts of the city. Some of these landscapes had forested areas and long winding rivers with natural rock formations and waterfalls. He saw great beauty in the trees and plants that grew naturally in the Midwest at a time when many Americans regarded native plants as weeds.

Nearly every Sunday and holiday, summer and winter, spring and fall, through those early years, I spent botanizing, studying and learning to know every plant that was native to this region. You see, in those days the city limits weren't so far out as they are now, and by riding to the end of the street-car line and then walking, one could see quite a number of plants in a day; and by taking the steam cars, one had a radius of thirty miles or so. I was amazed at the richness of color in every season of the year, particularly in the fall. Northern Europe has some color in the autumn, but nothing to compare with this country.²

Jens Jensen was promoted quickly to the position of gardener. Noticing that many formal gardens with neatly arranged imported plants were languishing, he decided to create a new kind of garden in Union Park. Jensen turned to the plants he had discovered during his weekend "botanizing" to create informal groupings of native wildflowers, an "American Garden."

When, as foreman I had my chance to design a garden, I laid out as formal a plantation as was ever made . . . In these formal beds the foreign plants didn't take kindly to our Chicago soil. They would die out no matter how carefully we tended to them, and our propagating beds were kept busy growing replacements. And after a while I began to think, "There's something wrong here. We are trying to force plants to grow where they don't want to grow."

So I thought I would experiment by moving a number of [native] plants in and seeing how they looked and fared, and in 1888, in a corner of Union Park, I planted what I called the American Garden. As I remember, I had a great collection of perennial wild flowers. We couldn't get the stock from nurserymen, as there had never been any requests for it, and we went out into the woods with a team and wagon and carted it in ourselves . . . People enjoyed seeing the garden. They exclaimed excitedly when they saw flowers they recognized: They welcomed them as they would a friend from home.³

Jensen's wildflower garden was a very new and unusual idea for his time. The American Garden soon became one of the park's most popular attractions.

Even though he was often quite controversial, Jensen's talents were recognized and he became superintendent of 200-acre Humboldt Park in 1895. Because he refused to get involved with political graft, a dishonest park board dismissed Jensen in 1900. However, with the appointment of reform candidates, Jensen returned to the West Park Commission serving as chief landscape architect and general superintendent of the West Park System. Beginning in 1905, he was given the opportunity to redesign existing parks and create some entirely new small parks.

In addition to creating landscapes that would appeal directly to the senses, emotions, and spirits of their visitors, Jensen championed his own philosophy. He was a man of strong opinions, who had arrived at them by both scientific observation and intellectual analysis, and he was willing to speak out. He was physically imposing, standing over six feet tall with keen blue eyes, a full head of red (later, white) hair and a matching flowing mustache. Jensen dressed with flair, often sporting a silk scarf around his neck. He had a dramatic way of speaking to get his point across; some people thought that he sounded like a screeching eagle when he became passionate about a cause. Jensen could also be quite persistent. When a worker installed a waterfall at the Garfield Park Conservatory, Jensen thought it more resembled a mountain cascade than a gentle prairie falls. It was only after Jensen insisted that the workman listen to Mendelssohn's Spring Song that he realized what Jensen envisioned and how he needed to change the waterfall.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why do you think Jensen, who was an immigrant, liked the natural midwestern landscape better than people who were born and raised in the area?

2. Why didn't Jensen believe in creating formal gardens with foreign plantings?

3. Why do you think Jensen called his experimental garden the "American Garden"?

4. How do you think people felt about native wildflowers before Jensen used them in the American Garden? How did they react to them in his garden? Why?

5. Even though Jensen's ideas were controversial, he was very successful. What do you think were some of the reasons for his success?

Reading 1 was compiled from Chicago Historical Society, Prairie in the City: Naturalism in Chicago's Park, 1870-1940 (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991); Leonard K. Eaton, Landscape Artist in America, The Life and Work of Jens Jensen (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1964); Robert E. Grese, Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Jens Jensen, Siftings (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990); and Jens Jensen and Ragna B. Eskil, "Natural Parks and Gardens," Saturday Evening Post, 202, no. 36 (8 March 1930).

1Jens Jensen as told to Ragna B. Eskil, "Natural Parks and Gardens," Saturday Evening Post, 8 March 1930, 18-19, 169-170.


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