Jens Jensen was a famous landscape architect
, urban designer
, and conservationist
of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Jens Jensen was born on September 3, 1861, near the little town of Dybbol on the border of Denmark and Germany. His family was rather wealthy, although they worked as farmers. Growing up, Jensen was influenced by the Danish landscape nearby, an area of farmland near the ocean. He was inspired by coastal bluffs, thick forests, scenic hedgerows, and fields of wildflowers. He became fascinated with water and the ocean. He appreciated the beauty of sunlight, having grown up in an area of harsh, dark winters. In April of 1864, the area was attacked by Germany under Bismark and the Jensen estate was destroyed. The area was occupied for Germany, and Jensen grew up under German rule. He attended much of his schooling in Germany, and served in the German army in the early 1880s.
Fueled by his distaste for German rule and his family's rejection of his future wife, Jensen emigrated to New York in 1884. Although he remained living in the United States, he never lost his Danish culture. He married Annie Marie Hansen on October 27th of 1884, and remained with her throughout his life. They had four children, three girls and a boy. Jensen spent some time in Florida and Iowa, and in 1886 he moved to Chicago where he remained until 1935. After this, he lived in Wisconsin until his death.
Jens Jensen spent much time observing the natural world around him, but he did not begin his landscaping architecture career until age 40, when he was fired from his city job for protesting the rampant corruption of the city. His first half dozen years were rather unsuccessful, but in 1905 he was appointed as the superintendent of Chicago's West Park system, which he brought from deserted wastelands to beautiful centerpieces. He was also a leader in the introduction of small neighborhood parks into the urban landscape. At times his interests melded into city planning as well, in 1918 he proposed an expansion of the park system of Chicago which would have made a string of parks along the rivers of the city, in reach of the poor and middle class. Tragically, this was derailed by politics. Jensen was also a devoted conservationist, and a leader in the creation of the Cook County Forest Preserve in 1902. Jensen's charisma, talent for oration, and enthusiasm assisted him in becoming important in the landscaping and conservation scene. In 1913 he founded the 'Friends of Our Native Landscape', an organization instrumental in preserving much of Illinois' remaining wilderness.
Jensen became increasingly disgusted with the corruption and deterioration of Chicago, and the loss of areas he had helped to beautify. He was forced to watch his artwork overtaken by highways and golf courses. In 1935 he moved to Wisconsin and founded a school at The Clearing in Ellison Bay. This work was considered his greatest by him and many others, and revealed in its openings surrounded by woods Jensen's vision of nature and the world. Trees thrived around the edges, dead tree trunks were covered with moss and doused in sunlight. The landscape represented a view of nature, of death and rebirth, that offered a great deal of hope. At about the same time he created the Lincoln Garden, a tribute to Lincoln consisting of many plants native to places the great president lived, placed around grass paths, speckled with slow-growing white oak, and punctuated by several council circles representing freedom and equality in communication between visitors of the garden.
Jensen died on October 1, 1951, at the age of 91, in Ellison Bay. He left sadly few landscapes in Chicago intact, as 'progress has buried many of these. Attributing to his art still are the Lincoln Garden, the parks in Racine, Wisconsin, and The Clearing, which still runs a thriving art school.