Jens Jensen and the Prairie School

From Neighborhood Parks to National Highways

Jens Jensen came to Decorah from Chicago, where he had planned parks, urban parkways, and the grounds of great private estates designed by renowned architects. Jensen was a native of Denmark, but when he was four, his home was pulverized by Bismarck’s cannonballs and his corner of Denmark became part of a German Empire built by “blood and iron.” Jensen grew up as a German citizen and served in the Prussian army in Berlin, then traveled to Denmark for his secondary education. A tall, courtly man, he always retained the gallant air of an Imperial Guardsman.

His wealthy parents refused to consent to his marriage to a poor crofter’s daughter, so Jensen and Anne Marie Hansen stormed off to America in 1884, where they were married and spent the rest of their lives. Life was not easy at first. Jensen worked as a common laborer in the Chicago parks. He and his wife spent their weekends botanizing on the fringes of the booming city. Within four years, Jensen rose to become superintendent of Union Park. By 1905, he was landscape architect for the whole West Parks System with a multimillion-dollar budget.

By the spring of 1909, when he came to Luther College, Jens Jensen was the most famous landscape artist in America and was attracting international attention. He was hailed as the successor to Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), the designer of Manhattan’s Central Park, the Stanford University campus, and the Chicago suburb of Riverside.

Jens Jensen pioneered the use of native plants in designed landscapes, and he was the first great landscape artist of the automobile era. His biographer, Robert E. Grese, called him a “maker of natural parks and gardens.” Jensen reshaped flat, marshy land around Chicago into huge parks with symbolic prairies, rivers, limestone bluffs, and woodlands created by his crews.

He asserted that he intended to bring the spirit of the Illinois prairie and woodland into the very heart of Chicago. Jensen worked to make the grounds of every public school into a playground, park, and local community center. He designed sinuous parkways to run through the city and a green belt to surround it, while he worked with ecologists to preserve scenic and endangered landscapes in several states as destinations for automobile excursions.

In 1913, Henry Ford and the other giants of Detroit commissioned him to design a section of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first coast-to-coast highway. Jens Jensen laid out a highway with planned vistas, a parallel hiking trail, and native prairie and woodland plantings. The engineers had other ideas, and American highways became quite different from what Jensen had envisioned.

The Legacy of Legends

With architect friends and colleagues like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Robert C. Spencer, Jr., Jens Jensen became a leader in the Prairie School of design. He and his friends took the Upper Midwest as their own. Chicago was its metropolis in their eyes, the Mississippi its lifeline, Abraham Lincoln its great hero, and they proclaimed this region to be the heartland of American civilization.

It was a wide, rolling country of hardwood forests and open glades, interspersed with prairie meadows, lakes, and rivers. They delighted in its four seasons with intense autumnal colors, sparkling snowy winters, poetic springtime awakenings, and bountiful summers. This was their Prairie Region, and Jensen helped them to define it. He gave them its symbols to weave into their architectural designs: the hawthorn, the wild rose, the crabapple, the spreading oak. Together, they created one of America’s great traditions of design.