At the heart of Jens Jensen’s philosophy was the use of flowers, bushes, understory, and canopy trees native to the local region. “The originality, the characteristic beauty of the American landscape we should keep as a sacred treasure,” he once wrote.
When he came to Luther College in 1909-11, Jensen began his work by studying the flora of the Oneota valley. He was driven by open automobile through the hills and dales, along the river, and up rugged, unpaved roads to the limestone palisades above the Oneota valley. Jensen snapped pictures with a little box camera and took notes on the native vegetation, eager to capture the essence of what he called the “immediate environment.” The wild plum was in bloom with its delicate aroma and color, “like clouds of snow drifting through the shady bottomlands,” as he later wrote.
Jens Jensen used many native plants in his campus plan for Luther College, analyzing the site for what would grow best, grouping plants as in a natural habitat, saving the bur oaks and other native trees. His plan included native oaks, maples, elm, walnut, white pine, and Douglas spruce; on the margins of clearings wild plum, crabapple, hawthorn, wild rose, birch, sumac, and hazel; at the entrance wild rose, snowberry, barberry, Indian currant, spirea, ninebark, highbush cranberry, sumac, and crabapple; on the bluffs honeysuckle, Indian currant, wolfberry, bittersweet, Virginia creeper, false indigo, thimbleberry, and wild blackberry; and as a sentinel in the clearing before Main, a lone cottonwood.
Flowing meadows surrounded by sculptured masses of vegetation were part of Jensen’s designs for Chicago parks, Detroit mansions—and the Luther College campus. At focal points where the groves met the meadows were the flowering trees of the woodland margins. Council rings were set in “rooms” of dappled shade or clearings in the woodland, sometimes with vistas beyond.
Changing views were an important part of Jens Jensen’s landscape design. They brought visual unity to spaces while encompassing the seasonal and daily variety of nature. From vantage points in the shade of a meadow’s edge, the eye was led across sunlit openings or towards the setting sun. At Luther College, vistas crossed the campus clearings to Main with its great cottonwood, to the Luther statue surrounded by trees, to the oaks in front of where the Franklin W. Olin Building now stands, and to the Oneota valley in the direction of the sunset.
Jens Jensen once wrote that “light and shadow and their distribution during the entire circle of the day and night are important fundamentals in the art of landscaping.” At Luther, sidewalks along the edges of clearings moved from the sunlight into small, shaded groves, then into sunlight again. Benches and a council ring in shady spots provided views across the bright clearings.
Road and paths in Jensen’s landscape always moved in gentle curves rather than straight lines, following the lay of the land in the dappled shade and sunlight along the edges, and drawing the traveler forward to investigate what lies beyond. The roadways and sidewalks of Luther College are far different than they were in Jensen’s day, but his principle of gently curving moment can still be seen on the campus.
Jensen wanted outdoor sculpture to be seen against a background of nature. He placed the Martin Luther statue in such a setting when others wanted it in front of Main. Later, the Pioneer Memorial was placed in a similar natural setting.
In his original plan for the Luther campus, Jensen showed a dry-stone circle by the limestone outcropping above the Regents Center, but it was never built. This was what Jensen later called a council ring, which he typically located in a woodland opening on the edge of a meadow or on a site with a view. He saw the council ring as a symbol of democratic companionship and harmony with nature, like an Indian campfire, or like the ancient circles of boulders where village elders still met in the Denmark of his youth.
To create a “natural” slope of land between Main and Preus Library, Jensen had to remove a berm or knoll running past Campus House in the direction of Koren. This grading exposed the roots of two ancient trees, so Jensen built walls of native limestone (later replace by concrete in one case) to encircle them, up to the former ground level. He wanted these grass-topped circles to form benches for conversation, study, and the enjoyment of nature. Grassy benches around trees were a design that went way back to medieval Europe; Jensen remembered them from his childhood in Denmark.
Jens Jensen frequently used flowing water in his landscapes. At Luther College, he considered the view of the Oneota valley to be part of his plan and said that it should always be left open. In his day, the lower campus was a marshy meadow, free of trees, and the glistening sweep of the river ran through it, surrounded by wooded hills. During the late 1940s, the river was diked as part of the Decorah flood-control project, and when U.S. Highway 52 was routed through the valley in the early 1960s, immense amounts of rock and fill were deposited on the lower campus to raise the ground level. Today the 800 acres of Luther College and its environs include virtually the entire view to the setting sun across the athletic fields of many kinds, but regular maintenance is necessary to maintain a glimpse of the flowing river.
Jensen knew that the landscape artist worked with a living and changing pallet. Tiny saplings grew into mighty trees and eventually died. Exotics intruded upon the native landscape. Cedars took over a meadow and were slowly overshadowed by forest. Later in his life, Jens Jensen anticipated these changes and simply sketched out a framework for a landscape, placing the initial plantings in locations and soils where they would naturally grow and then allowing “natural processes to take their course.” On one project, he enlisted school children to plant acorns where he envisioned an oak grove, knowing that future centuries would enjoy it.
Jensen was also fascinated with the daily changes of daylight and moonlight, sunrise and sunset, and the seasonal changes of autumn colors, winter snow, springtime flowering, and summer richness in Mid-America. He designed landscapes with elements that were beautiful in all these changing seasons.
Natural changes also bring designed landscapes to maturity and decline. Where large numbers of people gather in one place, a landscape will continue to look “natural” only if it is carefully maintained. At Luther College, the smaller understory plants on Jensen’s plan died out by the 1930s, while the elms succumbed to the Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, at the same time when many maples reached maturity. By the 1990s, Jensen’s great cottonwood in front of Main was nearly a century old and battered by age, awaiting its successor. Vistas across and beyond campus were gradually obscured, open spaces cluttered, and concrete routes proliferated, many of them running in straight lines. All of this fragmented the campus, disrupted its visual unity, and comprised the beauty it had revealed for much of the 20th century as a result of Jens Jensen’s genius.
—J.R. Christianson, November 1997