Imagine the native landscape of Mid-America, here in the Upper Midwest, with its woodlands, natural meadows, flowing water, rock cliffs, sunshine and dappled shade, ever-changing as seasons pass, as clouds part, as the sun sets and the moon rises.
Architect Jens Jensen imagined this landscape. He lived in it, studied it, and worked out a plan to reshape the Luther College campus into an icon of this woodland and meadow region. He wanted to “awaken people to the beauties around them, and to reconnect them to the biological heritage” at their doorstep.
His vision for the Luther campus was realized nearly a century ago.
Jens Jensen (1860–1951) was one of America’s great landscape artists. He crafted natural landscapes for famous houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and other Chicago architects of the Prairie School of design. His public works included Chicago parks, parkways, green belts, and natural preserves designed to “bring the prairies and woodlands” into the great Midwestern metropolis. In 1909, he visited Luther College. The campus was in dire need of a landscape plan.
Before it became a college campus, it was a grassy savanna scattered with Bur oaks. A young woman named Karine hiked here in the fall of 1862. From the limestone bluffs, she saw the glistening curve of the river between wooded hills in autumn colors. “I think it is the most beautiful place I have seen here in the West,” she wrote to her sister. “I have wandered around the area quite a bit and have found lots of good places for taking walks.” Karine Neuberg was staying with a relative, Laur. Larsen, who at 29 years of age was the first president of Luther College. The college was in downtown Decorah in 1862.
Down in the valley, Karine may have seen remains of wigwams and corn patches abandoned by the Ho-Chunk people, then called the Winnebago, when they had departed the area only a dozen years earlier. Burial mounds, centuries old, stood nearby. These bluffs and rolling hills were even older, having escaped the flattening effect of continental glaciers for 500,000 years. Karine explored the woodlands, savannas, and hardwood glades mixed with white pines and underlain with wildflowers. At the woodland margins were plum, sumac, elder, and hazel. Reeds and marsh vegetation filled the flood plain of the Oneota valley. Occasional wildfires and grazing deer kept the savanna free of underbrush but did not harm the oaks. Karine drank the beauty of nature on what would soon become a college campus.
You can follow Karine’s footsteps and wander in the paths of the Ho-Chunk people as you walk under the same spreading trees. Many oaks of that old savanna still survive on campus. Much has changed, but they remain. In this ancient landscape, spreading Bur oaks have always given the Luther College campus its particular character.
When large numbers of people gather in one place, the landscape is always changed. Buildings and paths appear. Resources are extracted from the land. Areas of recreation become trampled and hard. Eventually, somebody starts to plan how the landscape should look because the local ecology has been disturbed and can no longer evolve gradually in its natural state.
At Luther College, an immense Main building was erected during the Civil War years of 1862-65, expanded in 1878, destroyed by fire in 1889, and re-erected in 1890. When it was built, trees fell to the axe, limestone was quarried and made into lime, and clay for more than two million bricks was dug from the campus. Main building grew out of the campus itself, but the price was damage to the oak savanna and its surroundings. A gaping clay pit remained in front of Main, just beyond where a large cottonwood tree later grew.
To repair the damage, long avenues of spruce and elm were planted in straight lines, creating an enclosed geometrical space east of the new college building. This defined a patch of European order, superimposed upon the American wilderness and running from Lief Erikson Drive to Campus House and up to Main. North of this triangular patch of meadow, many Bur oaks survived. Students explored the river valley, swept down the hills on skis, played baseball and football in the glades, walked, and studied under the old oaks.
In 1909, nearly half a century after Karine had explored the oak savanna and its surroundings, the Luther College Club in Chicago hired landscape artist Jens Jensen to redesign the campus landscape—in time for the college’s Semicentennial in 1911.
The plan was breathtaking: Jensen knew that the original landscape could never be restored, but he proposed reshaping the Luther College campus into a symbolic representation of what he called Mid-America, the heartland of a new world civilization.
Horses and wagons appeared. Students were given “free days” to work with shovels and wheelbarrows. A natural knoll or berm west of Campus House (then called “Prestegaarden”) was gradually removed, and the earth was used to fill the clay pit in front of Main. In this way, a gentle slope was created, running all the way from Main to where Preus Library and the Franklin W. Olin Building stand today.
When Jensen arrived, an allé of elms marched in a double line from High Street to Main. This regulated planting reminded Jensen of Prussian militarism from his soldier days in Berlin. They were inappropriate, he said, because this was a campus where young people were being trained for life in a free, democratic society. He ordered them removed. Some of the elms were moved to the edge of the campus near Larsen. A few remained as specimens in what became an open meadow. All of them succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
Jensen did away with straight lines and replaced them with curves that flowed naturally. He reshaped the campus around three sunlit clearings—a large one in front of Main, another in front of Preus Library, and a third where the Center for Faith and Life now stands. Groves of oaks separated these clearings; Jensen scattered hard maples, white pines, and a few birches among them, with flowering crab and hawthorn at the margins by Campus House and Main.
In the large campus clearing in front of Main, he planted a lone cottonwood tree as a symbol of the American plains. Earlier planners had wanted to put the statue of Martin Luther in front of Main, but Jensen chose its present location, where it would be seen against a background of living greenery. One of his famous architect colleagues in Chicago’s Steinway Hall designed the pedestal.
In Jensen’s day, the lower campus was an open floodplain with the river moving through it in a sweeping curve. Along the bluff from Main to the outcropping of limestone above the Regents Center, Jensen laid out a scenic trail that led to a council ring. Sumac and maples caught the rays of the setting sun. A variety of low native shrubs covered the steep bank to attract birds and small wildlife and provide seasonal color.
Finally, Jensen planned a dramatic new entrance and roadways through the campus, swinging in dappled shade and sunlight along the edges of the clearings instead of cutting in straight lines through the landscape.
As crowds arrived to celebrate the semicentennial of Luther College in 1911, they approached the campus along Leif Erikson Drive instead of coming along High Street to the old allé. On the hillside below Sunnyside (since razed to accommodate Center for the Arts), Jensen’s rich symbolic woodland of evergreens, hardwoods, flowering shrubs in the understory, and wild roses and hawthorn at the edges shielded the view of the campus as they drew near.
Toward the end of this approach, the woodlands closed in on both sides of the road, hiding the campus until, suddenly, the road curved upward and the first clearing came into view. Ever-changing vistas opened as the road curved and rose. Across the sunlit campus clearing was the towering Main building, and in the distance were the smaller clearings in sun and shade. Finally, the view opened to the whole Oneota valley in the direction of the setting sun. The look was entirely “natural,” but it had been carefully planned. It was particularly stunning to those who remembered the run-down, linear look of the campus only a few years before. By all measures, Jens Jensen’s Luther College campus in its final form was a masterpiece of American landscape design.
Though the spirit of Jensen's design survived to the present, time brought his designed landscapes to maturity and on to decline. 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 and open spaces were cluttered. Concrete routes proliferated, many of them running in straight lines. All of this fragmented the campus, disrupted its visual unity, and compromised the beauty it had revealed for much of the 20th century as a result of Jens Jensen’s genius.
Planning for the college's 125th anniversary and knowing that Luther's heavily traveled landscape could continue to look “natural” only if it was carefully maintained, the Luther College Women’s Club of Decorah commissioned a new landscape plan to recapture the essence of Jens Jensen’s design and extend it to the portions of campus added since Jensen's day. They engaged Robert E. Grese, the leading authority on Jensen’s work, and John Harrington, a specialist in the flora of the Mid-American region.
In 1985, Grese and Harrington spent much of the summer at Luther College and worked out a master plan for restoring the character of Jensen’s campus. Their drawings divided the campus into eleven zones, including the original three zones designed by Jens Jensen, with a master plan for the development of each zone. In keeping with Jensen’s original plan, native plantings were implemented, and a council ring was built behind Koren.
The work will continue as we approach the centennial of Jens Jensen’s work. By the year 2011, when Luther College celebrates its 150th anniversary, the “woodland and meadow” campus conceived by Jensen should be fully restored and ready for another century of growth and change. The natural appearance of this beautiful campus brings serenity, harmony, and a sense of free anticipation to everyone who visits it or studies amidst its green and flowering idealization of Mid-American nature.
—J.R. Christianson, November 1997