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
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
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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Update: June 2012