Roots of the
Prairie Style, Part I
by Robert E. Grese, Director of Nichols Arboretum and Associate Professor of
Landscape Architecture, University of Michigan
The "Prairie Style" of landscape gardening practiced by Jens Jensen and his contemporaries Ossian Cole Simonds and Alfred Caldwell, was as much about conservation as it was about aesthetics. For individuals like Jensen and Simonds, their motivations grew out of a sense that the natural landscape, especially that of the Midwest, was changing drastically. In the growth around Chicago and other cities of the region, the unique natural features that gave each of these areas their distinctive character were in danger of being irrevocably lost. The intent of a prairie style garden was to help build an appreciation for the beauty of the natural landscape and to encourage actions to protect what natural areas remained.
For both Jensen and Simonds, making gardens that spoke to a regional natural heritage began very early in their careers. For Simonds, who saw the destruction of the fields and forests of his parents' farm where he wandered and explored as a child, landscape gardening offered an opportunity to reconnect people with the surrounding wilds. At Graceland Cemetery, for instance, where he cut his teeth on creating landscapes, Simonds sought to provide a restful network of country lanes, using many of the small trees typical of the wilds around Chicago--prairie crabapple, hawthorn, wild plum (Simonds, 1932). Similarly, Jensen's first acknowledged garden design, the "American Garden" in Union Park in Chicago, was an attempt to give urban people, many of whom had moved to the city from the county, something to remind them of the surrounding region. He wanted them to recognize the plants in this garden as "friends" from home (Jensen and Eskil, 1930).
Alfred Caldwell's introduction to landscape gardening came through listening to Jensen's cries for preserving nature against exploitation. When Caldwell came to talk to Jensen about a job in the 1920s, he was invited stay for lunch where Jensen talked to him about the "relation of living things to each other and to the soil" and the need for humans to rekindle an appreciation for the natural landscape. Jensen objected to calling native plants "wild," noting that "we are the wild ones."
Through his parks and gardens Jensen hoped to help people learn to "love and respect" nature (Malcolm Collier, interview with Alfred Caldwell, Dec. 17, 1989). The young Caldwell took this lesson to heart, creating natural parks and gardens like the dramatic Eagle Point Park in Dubuque, Iowa or the quiet Lily Pool in Lincoln Park in Chicago that would serve as refugia for native flora and fauna in the midst of busy urban areas. These were places where people would learn a new etiquette for respecting and learning to love natural things.
Inspiration for the prairie style came not from manuals or guidebooks but from direct study of natural places. For Simonds, his training as a civil engineer and early jobs working for the U.S. Geodetic Survey in the area of Saugatuck, Michigan gave him a first-hand knowledge of the dunes, prairies, forests, and wetlands found around Lake Michigan. In a 1922 talk at the University of Illinois, Simonds urged designers to become familiar "with the hills and valleys, the level areas, the location of buildings, the distant views, the existing growth, the surrounding property, the ponds, lakes or rivers" before beginning work on a design. He further noted that a landscape designer has "a mission to investigate, study, and acquire knowledge regarding the beauty of Nature and to impart this knowledge to those with whom he comes in contact" (Simonds, 1932). Jensen, too, learned about the landscapes of the Midwest first-hand. As a young immigrant to Chicago, Jensen, his wife Anne Marie, and their children would scour the wilds at the end of train lines, enjoying the beauty of the countryside and collecting plants (Collier, 1975). A skilled photographer, Jensen recorded both close-up features of individual plants as well as photographs of the broader landscape context. The destruction of these nearby wilds is what Jensen saw as one of the great tragedies of our country and it was one of the things that motivated many of his later conservation efforts through the Prairie Club and the Friends of Our Native Landscape. In his article, "Nature the Source" (Jensen, 1927), Jensen stressed that nature is the only true "source" for studying landscape gardening. For Jensen, nature provided "more real depth" and "more mystery" that fueled the subtle artistry of his design work . His careful handling of plant composition, stone work, light and shadow, textural contrasts, and outdoor space drew its strength from these in-depth studies of natural patterns. Jensen's parks and gardens became idealizations of the regional natural heritage of the Midwest.
Collier, Malcolm. 1975. "Jens Jensen and Columbus Park." Chicago
History 4, no.4 (Winter): 225-235.
Jensen, Jens. 1927. "Nature the Source." The Vista. Spring: 8-9, 11.
----Jensen and Ragna B. Eskil. 1930. "Natural Parks and Gardens." The Saturday Evening Post 202, no. 36 (March 8): 18-19, 169-170. Simonds, Ossian Cole. 1932. "Graceland at Chicago." American Landscape Architect 4, no. 1 (January): 12-17.
----"Nature as the Great Teacher in Landscape Gardening." Landscape Architecture Quarterly 22, no.2 (January): 100-108, 1932.