Few can probably name many historically important American landscape architects outside of AJ Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted. Maybe it’s because landscape designs are often intended to be natural and inconspicuous, often leaving their creators under-recognized for their work.
Whatever the reasons, it means those who are reading this and know who Jens Jensen is will likely be in a minority. Yet Jensen is among America’s most historically important landscape architects. Born in 1860, he grew up in German-occupied Denmark before immigrating to the United States. After stints in Florida and Iowa, Jensen settled in Chicago. There, having proudly begun as a “common laborer” (he would describe such manual labor as a “one of the blessings a human being can have during his life time”), Jensen worked his way up the ladder within the city’s West Park Commission before operating a private practice in his later years.
In his work, Jensen embraced natural designs while maintaining a devotion to the use of native species. This clearly links him to forebears, Olmsted and Downing. But his designs also adhered to the features of the prairie landscape, a reflection of the fact that his work, almost exclusively, took place in the Midwest. Not surprisingly, his work also shows an affinity to that of Midwest architects such as Sullivan and Wright.
That also goes a long way toward explaining why he’s virtually unheard of here in the East. In fact, he’s not known to have done any work in the vicinity of New York City; however, he did lend a hand to one particular endeavor, for which he is arguably deserving of greater recognition by New Yorkers. This was the Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park campaign against the New York Central. As we’ve seen in a previous post, the West Side Improvement Project encompassed the laying of New York Central track in its bid to reconcile the transport infrastructure on Manhattan’s west side with the safety of its residents. In doing so, it would create the High Line, ironically what we now know as a park despite the fact that the placement of linked uptown tracks once threatened to diminish Riverside Park.
In an October 1916 letter, H.R. Francis, a professor of landscape engineering at the New York State College of Forestry, reached out to Jensen on behalf of the WLPRP. Recognizing him as the “foremost Landscape Architect in the United States” Francis asked Jensen to review the New York Central’s proposal. Jensen agreed, eventually preparing a report in support of the League in which he described the project as “a conglomeration of vulgarity.” The records of the WLPRP provide excellent documentation of his assistance, including a number of letters from Jensen himself.
In January 1917, having completed his report, he also recommended the WLPRP send copies to various figures, including Stephen T. Mather of the Department of the Interior (soon to become the first director of the National Park Service), and volunteered to personally hand one over to President Theodore Roosevelt in conjunction with a trip to Washington. In addition to the report, Jensen wrote to a number of civic-minded New Yorkers, including Franklin C. Lewis, superintendent of Ethical Culture School, and the famed reformer Lillian Wald, exhorting both to do what they could to support the park. To Wald, Jensen exclaimed that to those who “sacrifice their life under the most cursed conditions” the park had the restorative power to “redeem their soul.”
That he stepped in to defend a park in the face of moneyed interests is not especially surprising. In his battles against corruption as a public official, Jensen had gained a reputation for his integrity, so much so that he was often called “the graft-fighting Dane.” Yet, despite the completion of his report, and other commitments, Jensen offered ongoing support from afar. Mainly, he encouraging the WLPRP to stand firm in their cause with comments such as “Whatever you do, do not compromise, stick to your colors, because you are right,” and “Just keep up courage, and do not let them get the best of you.” (At one point, Jensen even acknowledges that New York women lacked the right to vote, only gained later in 1917.)
Among the other causes Jensen in which was embroiled, was the campaign to save one of the Midwest’s unique natural landscapes, and a very interesting moment in the history of American conservation in general. Just that August Congress created the National Park Service. That fall, Mather, not yet director, was presiding over a hearing regarding the establishment of a national park from the dunes stretching along Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline. In fact, Jensen wrote apologetically to the WLPRP about his need to be present for Mather’s tour of the dunes, as well as his keenness to vote on his “pet scheme” before he could make his way to New York in preparation for his report. While the dunes project came to a screeching halt when the United States entered World War I, a portion would become a state park in 1926. In 1966, Congress then authorized the creation of a subsequent national lakeshore.
Unfortunately, given his close regional association, Jensen is perhaps less influential at a national level than his achievements might warrant. Regardless, his career deserves to be remembered broadly, if nothing else, as a reminder of the range of benefits that public landscape design conveys, beyond aesthetics. As Jensen’s work and his support of public parks remind us, the field can have profound effects on the social and cultural health of the populations it serves. Indeed, Jensen, like many of his cohort (including Olmsted), was as much a creative influence as a social reformer, much in keeping with his era. In one of his letters to Mrs. Charles A. Bryan, of the WLPRP, Jensen commented frankly on his battles:
Enemies, dear me, I have lots of them. If you want to accomplish something in life you must have enemies. To be able to do some good is worth more than all the millions in the world, and it is worth ten thousand enemies. It is the essence of life.