Plan, Lloyd School Center, Jens Jensen, 1920.

Roots of the Prairie Style: Parks and Gardens (Part II)
by Robert E. Grese, Director of Nichols Arboretum and Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Michigan







Many of the early landscape designers confronting the Midwestern landscape often found it depressing and lacking in beauty when compared to the landscapes they had worked with elsewhere in the country. However, for the key designers associated with the "prairie style"--O.C. Simonds, Jens Jensen and Alfred Caldwell--this same landscape that seemed depressing to others became a source of great inspiration. In their designs, the simple spaces and the complex composition of plants are meant to evoke a feeling of the larger natural landscape. Certain features, like the horizontal ground plain were frequently reinforced by planting trees or shrubs such as the hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli or C. mollis), crabapple (Malus ioensis or M. coronaria), or pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) with their horizontal branching structure. In the stonework of Jensen's and Caldwell's gardens, layered bands of limestone mimic the underlying geology of the region and almost appear as if erosive forces have gracefully exposed bedrock. The intent of these gardens was, as Simonds noted, to help people "to see the beauty of nature..." and to teach them "to respect the wooded bluffs and hillsides, the springs, streams, river banks, and lakeshores within city boundaries, and preserve them with loving care."

Through these designed parks and gardens people would begin to understand and appreciate the history and subtle beauties of the region and hopefully be motivated to pursue conservation of remaining wilds. Wilhelm Miller was among the first to recognize the work of Simonds and Jensen as a distinct style--which he termed the "prairie style" or the "prairie spirit." In his landmark publication The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening (Urbana: University of Illinois 1915), Miller described this style as based on the regional landscape, growing "out of the most striking peculiarity of middle-western scenery, which is the prairie, i. e., flat or gently rolling land that was treeless when the white man came to Illinois." This didn't mean, however, that the parks and gardens designed by Simonds or Jensen necessarily incorporated the herbaceous flora of the prairie in the way that has become popular in recent years. Instead, they sought to emulate the "spirit" of the prairie spatially and structurally in the frequently smaller park or garden spaces where they worked. Usually, "prairies" were represented by mowed grass, often rough-mowed grass with short wildflowers naturalized rather than our current monocultural lawns that are products of the post World War II chemical revolution. Spatially, these open 'meadows" or "prairies," as they were labeled on plans, were meant to give a feeling of the broader prairie expanse. Along the edges of these outdoor rooms would be masses of prairie flowers and sometimes native grasses as they made transition into wetland habitats or graded into woodlands. Unlike the more formal gardens of the period, plants were given irregular spacing and planted in broad masses to emulate regional natural habitats.

Structurally, plants were arranged in layers just as they would be found in the wild. At the edges of openings would first be herbaceous plants, followed by shrubs and small trees of varying heights, followed by the taller trees of the forest or savanna. While none of these men were "purists" in using only locally native plants, native species did provide the broad background of most of their designs, and they were among the first to champion many of the "common" plants of the prairie states not typically used in garden and park designs.

Careful attention was given to the orientation of outdoor spaces or rooms to provide dramatic interactions with the changing patterns in the sky, the low angled lighting of sunrise and sunset, and the shadow patterns that would shift over the course of a day and certainly over the seasons.

A performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream on the Players' Green, Columbus Park, 1940


The result was a dynamic to these outdoor spaces that celebrated the changeability of the Midwestern landscape. Living in one of these home landscapes or frequently visiting one of the parks made you acutely aware of the seasons, weather patterns, or times of day. This was particularly evident in Jensen's masterful design of the "Player's Green" at Columbus Park, where he oriented the stage and sitting area for the audience on an east-west access. He intended for performances to be scheduled to begin around dusk. The audience would sit facing west where they could watch the sun set behind the trees and brilliantly color the sky. As the performance would begin, the moon would rise to the audience's back flooding the performance area with light.


Simonds, Jensen and Caldwell carefully choreographed how people moved through their landscapes creating a sense of mystery by varying the sizes of outdoor rooms and partially concealing what lay ahead. Much like the interior rooms of a Frank Lloyd Wright house where space flowed subtly from one room to the next, these designs were based on a sequence of spatial experiences. Large open meadows or broad vistas alternated with enclosed woodlands or dense shrub masses, and dark or shadowy paths and roads contrasted with open sunny views. Jensen, in particular, found an allegory in a path that led from a shadowy woods into an open clearing. He related the clearing to the more general healing affect the landscape might have on a troubled or anxious mind and those moments of intellectual or emotional clarity. At key places in the landscape, often at places with exceptional views, gathering spaces were created. In the parks and gardens of Jensen and Caldwell, these were furnished with simple, circular stone seats which they called "council rings." Council rings provided settings for a variety of informal or formal gatherings including outdoor performances, general discussions, poetry readings, and lectures. Jensen intended that these rings would foster a tradition of outdoor life and culture thereby nurturing a deeper attachment to the natural landscape.


Among the most celebrated and unique of Jensen's designs is in fact an indoor garden: the Garfield Park Conservatory. The Fern Room at the Conservatory is certainly one of the jewels of the Chicago Park District and one of the best places to see Jensen's prairie design style--albeit with tropical plants--in all it's glory. It is perhaps ironic that one of the best surviving Jensen's designs is an indoor garden!

Described as a restoration of prehistoric Illinois, Jensen intended the garden to give visitors a glimpse of the types of plants growing in Illinois in an earlier and much warmer geologic time. He incorporated many of the principles found in his outdoor gardens in this garden under glass. The center of the greenhouse is kept open with a pool and idealized swamp to give a sense of openness that would have been lost if taller plants were grouped towards the center as they are in most greenhouses. Jensen cleverly built stone walls around the outer edges of the room that cover the steam pipes and work areas. Covered with various ferns, liverworts, and mosses, these same walls allow for the streams and waterfalls that give the room its unique character. Paths through the conservatory are much like Jensen's walkways through his gardens--the consciously constrict and then open up at vista points, crossing streams at several points, and causing you to completely forget you're in an indoor space and be completely absorbed in the lush greenery. In fact, when the conservatory first opened in 1907, people thought the conservatory had been built around existing water courses and natural features. Yet, this was Jensen's artistry at its finest. The much repeated story of how Jensen insisted that the workman building the prairie waterfall in the garden listen to Mendelssohn's "Spring Song" testifies to the difficulty of creating such subtle landscape effects, particularly in small park and garden spaces. It is exactly this attention to craftsmanship and artistry that make the prairie style landscapes of Simonds, Jensen and Caldwell among the best examples of a quiet but extremely eloquent landscape art.