The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

Reform and Innovation in the West Park System: 1905-1920

reform-and-innovationAs the pioneering neighborhood parks began offering new amenities to the city's South Side, improvements were finally underway within the West Park System. In 1905, a reform-minded governor, Charles S. Deneen, swept the commission clean, appointing an entirely new and progressive board that selected Jens Jensen as its general superintendent and chief landscape architect. Inheriting a neglected and deteriorated park system, Jensen began ambitious improvements to Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas parks. These projects gave Jensen an opportunity to experiment with his evolving naturalistic style such as demolishing poorly maintained small conservatories in all three parks in order to construct the larger, centralized Garfield Park Conservatory.

The new Garfield Park Conservatory was considered revolutionary when it opened in 1908. Unlike other conservatories of the period, the structure's form was meant to emulate a haystack and the interior was conceived as landscape art under glass. 1 Many other conservatories had showy displays of plants in pots on pedestals or in larger groupings in the center of a room. Jensen, however, placed plants directly in the ground and framed views by keeping the center of each room open, with a fountain or a naturalistic pond serving as the centerpiece. He also hid exposed pipes and mechanical systems by tucking them behind beautiful walls of stratified stonework. Unlike the mounds of volcanic stone used in Victorian conservatories, Jensen's horizontal stonework resembled the bluffs and outcroppings found along rivers in the Midwest.

Unfinished areas within all three parks also gave Jensen the opportunity to create impressive naturalistic landscapes. He established horizontal meadows edged with masses of native trees and shrubs that offered broad views of the landscape and provided space for lawn tennis, baseball, and festivals. In Humboldt Park, Jensen extended the park's existing lagoon into a long, meandering waterway evocative of the natural scenery he saw during trips to wetland areas in Illinois and Wisconsin. Nearby he created a formal circular rose garden and adjacent perennial garden that incorporated wildflowers and ornamental native grasses. Similarly, Jensen introduced formal gardens in Douglas and Garfield parks that deviated from tradition by including native plants and Prairie style architectural elements. Jensen believed that "every detail of the park composition should be an absolute harmony," and he was particularly interested in the placement of sculpture in the landscape. 2 Under the auspices of the Municipal Art League, Jensen sponsored outdoor art exhibitions in Humboldt and Garfield parks in 1908 and 1909, in which he placed sculptural works in appropriate settings.

The new neighborhood parks on Chicago's South Side inspired the West Park Commissioners, and in 1907 Jensen had the opportunity to create similar parks for their district. Due to the West Side's extreme density, the commissioners could only acquire very small sites. Despite this, Jensen included all of the major program components introduced by the South Park prototype, incorporating Prairie style field houses and site furnishings, and some native plantings. He also created small clearings for free play, as well as community gardens, in which gardeners taught children how to plant and tend their own plots.

Jensen also experimented with other ways to bring people closer to nature. Embracing a connection between nature and performing arts, Jensen encouraged outdoor performances and festivals, such as a major event held in Garfield Park in 1915. This Pageant of the Year and Play Festival celebrated the four seasons. A procession of 1400 children and adults in costumes representing flocks of birds, trees, flowers, and other natural features paraded before an audience of 25,000. 3 Jensen's interest in the performing arts also prompted him to include natural looking outdoor theaters, called players' greens, in several park plans.

Due to changing political tides, Jensen shifted his role from superintendent to consulting landscape architect in 1909. Despite this change, he continued to make ambitious recommendations and create visionary designs. In 1917, Jensen began an intensive study, suggesting the addition of thousands of acres of new parks, boulevards, greenways, and gardens to the West Park System. Although little of this Plan for a Greater West Park System was ever implemented, one of its recommendations, a new large part at the western limit of Chicago, was realized. This was Columbus Park, Jensen's first and only opportunity to design an entirely new large park for Chicago. Jensen considered Columbus Park as "complete an interpretation of the native landscape as anything" he had ever done. 4 Unfortunately, in 1920, while the park was under construction, Jensen lost political support once again, and he severed his ties with the West Park Commission for the final time.

1. Thomas McAdam, "Landscape Gardening Under Glass," County Life in America, V. XXI- No. 4, 15 December 1911, p.11.
2. Jens Jensen, "Object Lesson in Placing Park Sculpture," Park and Cemetery, Vol. XVII, no. 9, November 1908, p. 438.
3. West Chicago Park Commission, Forty-seventh Annual Report of the West Chicago Park Commissioners, Chicago: 1915, pp. 18-24.