TwHP Lessons

Chicago's Columbus Park:
The Prairie Idealized

[Cover photo] The Lagoon at Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois. (Courtesy of Chicago Park District Special Collections)


here are multitudes who rarely get beyond the City limits . . . They need the quietude of the pastoral meadow and the soothing green of grove and woodland in contrast with the noise and glare of the great city.¹

In the early years of the 20th century, when Carl Sandburg wrote the poem, Chicago, he itemized the work being done in the city: shoveling, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding. While the poet was eulogizing the work done in the "City of the Big Shoulders . . . proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning," a tall redheaded Danish immigrant with a flowing mustache was endeavoring to create a landscape where the people of the densely populated city could refresh their spirits and refine their sensibilities after laboring so hard.

Jens Jensen came to the United States when he was about 24 years old, settled in Chicago, and promptly fell in love with the Midwest's prairie landscape. Although some thought the prairie was boring, monotonous, and ordinary, Jensen saw great beauty in the midwestern tree-filled groves, long winding rivers, natural rock formations and waterfalls, and the flat stretches filled with colorful native grasses and wildflowers. Rising from street-sweeper and gardener to West Park Commission General Superintendent and Chief Landscape Designer, and then becoming a consulting landscape designer, Jens Jensen began designing Columbus Park in 1915. On a parcel of land that consisted of about 150 acres, named for the explorer who opened the Americas to European settlers, Jensen would attempt to interpret the native landscape of Illinois as comprehensively as possible.

¹Jens Jensen to the West Park Commission. Forty-Ninth Annual Report of the West Chicago Park Commission, 1917, 18.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. West Park System, Chicago, 1917
 2. Jensen's original plan for Columbus Park
 3. Jensen's original plan (Detail)

Determining the Facts: Readings
 1. An American Garden
 2. Columbus Park--The Prairie Idealized
 3. Beauty of the Wild

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. Recent photograph of prairie
 2. Stone outcropping, c. 1910
 3. Natural prairie river, c. 1911
 4. Excavation of the Lagoon, 1916
 5. The Lagoon with boaters, c. 1920
 6. Council Ring with children, 1920s
 7. Original swimming hole with children, c. 1935

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. Save that Site
 2. Green Scene

Supplementary Resources

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This lesson is based on Columbus Park, one of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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