If you met him once, you’d never forget him: everyone says so. Six feet tall, his stick-straight posture and shock of white hair making him seem taller; bright blue eyes and white mustache set in a ruddy face; rough tweeds set off by a silk scarf fastened around his neck with a silver sea-wolf ring. A man with strong opinions, a strong temper, and a good speaking voice. “I always agreed with everything he did,” recalled one client. “I’m sure that it would have been most unpleasant if I hadn’t.” You might say a commanding presence, a Viking: Jens Jensen (1860-1951), landscape architect of Denmark, Chicago, and Door County, Wisconsin.
As a 24-year-old immigrant, Jensen studied the midwestern landscape more thoroughly, and believed in it more passionately, than most natives. He played a prominent part in the pre-World War I Chicago Renaissance, where his acquaintances included reformers (Graham Taylor, Jane Addams), scientists (Henry Cowles), fellow artists (Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe, Frank Lloyd Wright), and politicians (Illinois governor Frank Lowden). Jensen created Columbus Park on the western edge of Chicago, and extensively redesigned three other large west-side parks (Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas) as well as 15 small ones. He designed parks in smaller cities – among them Racine and Madison, Wisconsin; Dubuque, Iowa; and Springfield, Illinois. He landscaped dozens of estates belonging to wealthy midwesterners along the North Shore (Rosenwalds, Florsheims, Ryersons, Beckers) and elsewhere (Henry and Edsel Ford).
Jensen organized and inspired the early conservation movements that led to the creation of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the Illinois state park system, the Indiana Dunes State Park and National Lakeshore. Everywhere he championed his core conviction: people must have some contact with the “living green,” – flowers and plants native to their home. To Jensen, landscape architecture was not just a profession, nor was the use of native plants just one style among many – they expressed his near-mystical belief in the renewing and civilizing powers of nature. He was a reformer with his hands on a spade and his head in the clouds.