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Jens Jensen

eco Lab"Our native landscape is our home, the little world we live in, where we are born and where we play, where we grow up and finally where we are...laid to eternal rest. It speaks of the distant past and carries our life into the tomorrow. To keep this pure and unadulterated is a sacred heritage, a noble task of the highest cultural value." - Jens Jensen to Camillo Schneider, April 15, 1939

About 30 acres of the NMP EcoLab is part of the Riverdale estate designed by Jens Jensen for James A. Allison (one of the founders of the Indianapolis 500) in 1912. Jensen designed several parks in Chicago as well as hundreds of private estates. He is well known for using mainly native plants in natural groupings in his plantings. The gravel trails in the NMP EcoLab are built on top of Jensen's original roads and many of the structures such as limestone stairs, benches, bridges, and 1/2 moon pools are still intact.

Jensen was born in Denmark in 1860 and immigrated to Chicago in 1884. In Chicago he worked as a street sweeper for the Chicago Parks Department and also at a local nursery. In his nursery job and in trips out of the city he learned to appreciate the native flora of the Chicago area. He was particularly fond of the prairie landscape.

For some reason, Jensen was allowed to design and plant a corner of Union park in Chicago. He used the opportunity to implement what he called the "American Garden." In this planting he used all native plant materials, a design element that would become characteristic of his landscape designs.

design planA social reformer at heart, Jensen was interested in instilling an appreciation and love of nature into the people, because he felt that nature could be an antidote to the dehumanizing effect of city life. Remember that this was the late 1800's and the industrial revolution was in full swing. Cities were overcrowded, polluted, unsanitary, and disease was running rampant. Jensen, like Emerson and Thoreau, and other landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted were interested in drawing people out into a natural environment and believed deeply in the healthful and civilizing effects of doing so.

Olmsted, designer of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, was also interested in drawing folks from the city out into a natural environment. He was not tied, however, to native plant species or natural plant groupings. Naturalized European or Asian species were often used in his designs.

Being very drawn to the broad horizons of the near-Chicago prairie landscape, Jensen was one of the founders of the "prairie school" of landscape architecture. This type of design emphasized and accentuated the repeated horizontal lines of the prairie landscape. Notice in the prairie picture, left, the repeated layered horizons: the grass, the shrubs, the trees, and the sky.

Jensen eventually designed several parks in Chicago's west district including Columbus, Douglas, Humboldt, and Garfield. Notice the repeated horizontal lines in the flagstone and layers of vegetation in the photographs at the right. Also notice the native vegetation and natural plant groupings.
Jensen was fired from his Chicago Parks Department job during a political upheaval and spent much of his design career designing estates for the rich, such as the Fair Lane estate for Henry Ford in Michigan and the estates of James Allison, Carl Fisher, and Frank Wheeler, three of the four founders of the Indianapolis 500. Jensen designed hundreds of estates but, as a social reformer, he always felt "it was a great loss or tragedy that I am always doing these estates for these rich…I shouldn’t be doing these places, I should be doing great regional parks…That is the meaning in my life."

Features of a Jensen design:

  1. Use of native plants in the naturalistic portion of the design. Notice the native plants listed on the planting plan from the Allison estate, right. (Hard maple, witch hazel, Sagittaria, Hibiscus moscheutos (palustris), hawthorn, elderberry, dogwood, etc.

  2. Major architectural structures like bridges, pergolas, spring houses, limestone benches, and stairs. Pictures at right are from the Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab.
  3. Water features - such as ponds, wetlands, 1/2 moon pools, etc. Pictures at right are from the Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab.
  4. Council rings and amphitheaters - These were design features Jensen used to draw people out into the landscape. Sitting outside around the council ring, people could discuss world peace or some other lofty topic while in a natural, rejuvenating setting. In our council ring (the brick at the bottom of the picture, right) the fountain Jensen built is no longer visible, but plans are in place to restore it (See black and white picture left).

  5. The player’s green or outdoor amphitheater built for Allison by Jensen currently in the Marian University EcoLab is pictured at right. The stage is on the rise between the two statue pedestals. Imagine watching a performance as the sun went down behind the cedars.

  6. Meadow or prairie - Jensen often included a large open area in his planting plan. In the plan for the Allison estate (pictured at the top of the document) the meadow is written in as "Clover Meadow."
  7. Formal gardens distinct from natural park portion of grounds. The formal gardens would often be placed near the house. At the Allison estate, it is south from the mansion and colonnade, and the natural area is to the north. See the planting plan at the top of this document.

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