Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Jens Jensen
Nature Bulletin No. 608-A   September 11, 1976
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

September 13 is the birth date of Jens Jensen, the famous landscape architect known as the father of the Chicago park system and one of a small group of tenacious people primarily responsible for the establishment of our forest preserve district. He died in 1951 at Ellison Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, aged 91.

Jens Jensen was born in Denmark, attended the agricultural school in Jutland and, after more technical training in Copenhagen, spent three years sketching parks in Berlin and other German cities. Inherently an artist with a love of natural beauty and reverence for the soil, he became fed up with the "soulless" artificiality of European parks and formal gardens characterized by geometric designs employing exotic plants, clipped hedges and sculptured figures.

So, in 1884 he came to America and shortly after to Chicago where he was employed, first as a laborer and then as a foreman, in the west side parks. At that time Union Park, with 17 acres and a zoo, was the principal park in Chicago. During those early years Jensen spent every week-end and holiday exploring the Chicago region and studying its native flora. He was profoundly affected by the magnificence of our midwestern landscapes -- the vast prairies, the oak openings, the placid streams, the richness of colors changing as the seasons changed -- and by the decorative qualities of the hawthorns, crabapples and sumacs. In 1888 he planted an "American garden" in one corner of Union Park, utilizing, with the technique that was to make him famous, only native shrubs and wildflowers.

In 1890 he was made superintendent of several small parks, including Union; became general superintendent of the entire West Park System in 1906; and from 1910 to 1920 was retained as a consultant for that system, now part of the Chicago Park District. During those 30 years he designed and supervised the building of Humboldt, Garfield, Douglas and Columbus parks, as well as several small parks and playgrounds, always using his distinctive style and native plant materials.

In 1920 he retired to private practice, laying out private estates and parks from Main to Iowa. In 1935 he moved to Ellison Bay where he established The Clearing, his unique "school of the soil" for landscape architects and artists.

Jensen's life was dedicated to preservation of the beauties of our native landscapes and also, because he loved people even more, to creating places of beauty for the permanent enjoyment of the people. He vigorously strove for more small parks as "breathing spaces" in the congested areas of Chicago. "To my notion, " he said, "there should be a park area within walking distance of every city resident. .

He was also a leader in many successful efforts, throughout America, to preserve distinctive areas as state and national parks. Our Cook County Forest Preserves owe their existence, character and purpose largely to many years of effort by a devoted group of which he was a key member.

Jens Jensen's epitaph might truthfully be "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice" -- If it is my memorial you seek, gaze around you.

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