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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Columbus Park--The Prairie Idealized

During the interval between his jobs with the West Chicago Park System, Jensen began a private landscape design business. He mingled with reformers such as Jane Addams, artists including poet Carl Sandburg, and Prairie School architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Dwight Perkins. Jensen created landscapes on private estates from the Midwest to the East Coast for such famous clients as the Ford, Armour, and Florsheim families. Most importantly, his experimentation with natural-looking features matured into a unique landscape design style known as the Prairie style. Drawing on observations and photographs made during his jaunts to the prairie with his family, Jensen incorporated regional trees and flowers in idealized settings of groves, streams, limestone outcroppings, and flat fields of the Midwest. He explained, "As I made my Sunday excursions to the woods for the purpose of studying the native flora, I came to love the native landscape for its contours and physical aspects as well as for its plant life . . . A landscape architect, like a landscape painter can't photograph; he must idealize the thing he sees. In other words, he must try to portray its soul."1

Jensen had big ideas for improving Chicago's west side. He envisioned a 4,000-acre extension to the existing park system with boulevards, community gardens, and playgrounds, but this project was never undertaken. However, between 1916-1920, Jensen's design for a large, completely new park for Chicago was realized. This was Columbus Park.

The Park Commission had acquired a very interesting property on the western edge of Chicago, a 150-acre farm that included fields, wooded areas, and traces of sand dune. Because of the sandy area, Jensen was convinced that the site was an ancient beach formed by glacial action. He explained:

Columbus Park has special interest . . . because it is situated above and below the beach. The natural topography suggested such a layout.

This whole park is a typical bit of native landscape idealized as it appears near Chicago. The prairie bluff of stratified rock along the river has been symbolized with plant life. To the west extend the great lawns that symbolize the prairie meadow. These lawn areas are used for golf, but the greens are laid out in such fashion as not to destroy the horizontal aspect of the scene. Limestone rock from our native bluffs, with a backing of native forests has been used in natural walls for the swimming pool and the wading pool for children.2

Incorporating the natural history and topography of the site, Jensen created series of rolling hills, similar to glacial ridges, that encircled the flat, central portion of the park. Within this area, following the traces of the ancient lake beach, Jensen created an artificial prairie river. He included two waterfalls of stratified (layered) rock over which water trickled as if from springs into two brooks meandering and merging into a larger, natural looking lagoon or waterway.

Between the two waterfalls was a sun opening, which was also considered a "clearing." There Jensen placed a "player's green," an area for outdoor theater and music. In another clearing on the perimeter of the park, Jensen designed a children's playground. Instead of filling it with playground equipment, Jensen tried to encourage free play in the open space. He also included a wading pool and a council ring; a circular stone bench for story telling and campfires. He thought it a very American, democratic feature, where everyone could speak on an equal basis. Other features for park programs included a swimming pool with rocky ledges resembling a country swimming hole. It could accommodate 7,000 swimmers.

On the west side of the park, facing the setting sun, Jensen created a flat horizontal meadow. This representation of a natural prairie provided a golf course and ball fields. The area included prairie flowers and shrubs. To simulate forest groves, Jensen used massed elms, ash, maples, hawthorns, and crab apples. Along the brook he planted rushes, cattails, hibiscus, and arrowheads. As he poetically explained in his 1917 report to the Parks Commission:

But in Columbus Park, our meadow with its woodland borders, our river with its dark shaded bluffs, and our groves with their variation of light and shadow, are only a part of the landscape. The sky above, with its fleeting clouds and its star-lit heavens, is an indispensable part of the whole. Looking west from the river bluffs at sundown across a quiet bit of meadow, one sees the prairie reflected in the river below. This gives a feeling of breadth and freedom that only the prairie landscape can give to the human soul.3

Jens Jensen considered Columbus Park his greatest design achievement. With this work he was able to include all of the elements that fully expressed his Prairie style. By using sky, water, land contours, stonework, native plants, clearings, a players green, and a council ring he created a beautiful idealization of the Midwestern landscape. Above all, he created a landscape that was a balm for the human soul, fulfilling his "obligation as a park man to bring this out-of-doors to the city."4

Questions for Reading 2

1. How did Jensen capture the "soul of the landscape" at Columbus Park?

2. What is an example of a design element that was symbolic of the natural landscape and also provided a function for people using the park?

3. Why do you think Jensen considered Columbus Park his greatest design?

4. Do you agree with Jensen that it is necessary to bring the outdoors to people who live in a city? Explain.

Reading 2 was compiled from Malcolm Collier, "Jens Jensen and Columbus Park," Chicago History, no. 4 (Winter, 1975); 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); Jens Jensen to the West Park Commission, Forty-ninth Annual Report of the West Chicago Park Commission, 1917; and Jens Jensen and Ragna B. Eskil, "Natural Parks and Gardens," Saturday Evening Post, 202, no. 36 (8 March 1930).

1 Jens Jensen as told to Ragna B. Eskil, "Natural Parks and Gardens," Saturday Evening Post, 8 March 1930, 18-19, 169-170.
2 Ibid.
3 Jens Jensen to the West Park Commission.
Forty-ninth Annual Report of the West Chicago Park Commission, 1917, 18.
4 Jens 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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