Boaters in Columbus Park, c. 1920


Columbus Park:
A Masterpiece in Landscape Design

by Julia S. Bachrach, Chicago Park District





Located seven miles from bustling downtown Chicago is Columbus Park, an impressive landscape of wildflowers, waterfalls, stepping stone paths, and a prairie river. Although some might think this is a scenic natural site, it is actually the masterpiece of Jens Jensen, one of the most significant figures in the history of American landscape architecture. Jensen, who is now recognized as the dean of Prairie style landscape design and father of the Midwestern conservation movement, asserted that his 1917-1920 design for Columbus Park was "as complete an interpretation of the native landscape" as anything he had ever done."

Having begun as a laborer in the 1880¡¯s, Jensen rose to the position of chief landscape architect and general superintendent of the entire West Park Commission in 1905. After several years of repairing and improving the system¡¯s existing parks and creating small parks for tenement districts, he had an opportunity to design a whole new park on the "largest single piece of vacant property" on Chicago¡¯s west side. The lovely 144-acre site included fields, wooded areas, and traces of sand dune. Jensen¡¯s vision for its design was inspired by the natural history and topography of the unimproved property. The sandy area convinced him that this was the site of an ancient beach formed by glacial action. In response, he designed a series of berms, reminiscent of glacial ridges, encircling the flat interior portion of the park. Following the remaining traces of the lake beach, he created a long meandering lagoon to emulate a natural prairie river. To represent the source of the prairie river, Jensen created two waterfalls of stratified stonework. Water trickling over these waterfalls flowed into brooks, that could be crossed by stepping-stone paths.

Near the juncture of the two brooks, Jensen created a player¡¯s green, a slightly elevated outdoor stage for theatrical performances. On the other side of the stream, directly across from the player¡¯s green, he sited a lawn for the audience. Jensen quickly planted the edges of the outdoor stage with elms, ash, maples, hawthorns, crab apples, sumac, hazel, and wildflowers, leaving two "back stage" clearings as changing areas for performers. Particularly fond of a clearing in a woodland landscape, Jensen asserted that these spaces would let in "the smiling and healing rays of the sun."

A clearing or sun-opening was also a significant element in Jensen¡¯s design for the children¡¯s playground area, east of the prairie river. Rather than erecting bulky playground apparatus, he believed this simple and natural-looking space would promote free play. In it, he included a council ring, a circular stone bench with a flat stone in the center to
be used as a hearth. For him, this design element had great meaning. He suggested that a "ring speaks of strength and friendship and is one of the great symbols of mankind."

The golf course was also very symbolic for Jensen. Although this recreational feature had been a requirement in the park¡¯s design, for Jensen the flat horizontal golf meadow was a metaphor for the prairie. He broke up the broad expanse of meadow and provided shade to the golfers with small groves of trees and shrubs. Having oriented the golf course towards the setting sun, he wrote that "looking west from the river bluffs at sundown across a quiet bit of meadow, one sees the prairie melt away into stratified clouds above, touched with gold and purple and reflected in the river below."

In 1953, the southern nine acres of Columbus Park were destroyed to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway. Unfortunately, this resulted in the loss of ball fields, part of the golf course, and a large portion of the park¡¯s circuit drive. The Chicago Park District filled the south end of the prairie river to replace the ball fields that had been lost. Despite the loss of land and other changes caused by the Eisenhower Expressway construction, Columbus Park still conveys Jensen¡¯s genius. In 1991, the park district restored the waterfalls, player¡¯s green and surrounding landscape. Current and future initiatives include improvements to the landscape and fieldhouse as well as a community-driven planning process to upgrade park programs and operations.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation has unveiled its first interactive CD-ROM for middle school students. Entitled The Prairie Idealized: Columbus Park the CD-ROM focuses on the ever-evolving relationship between Columbus Park and its Chicago neighbors. It will be distributed to middle schools throughout the Columbus Park neighborhood. For more information, call 202-483-0553.