The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

West Park System: 1869-1900

west-park-systemOriginally known as North, Central, and South Parks, the West Park System later became known as Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas parks, with interlinking boulevards. Plans for the entire ensemble were completed in 1871 by William Le Baron Jenny, an architect, engineer, and landscape designer best known for contributions to the development of the skyscraper. Jenney had studied engineering in Paris during the 1850s, and later served along with Frederick Law Olmsted to improve sanitary conditions during the American Civil War. Jenney's plans for of the three West Parks incorporated features characteristic of Olmsted's work such as picturesque lagoons, winding paths, open meadows, and lushly planted areas. In addition to Olmsted's influence, Jenney's plans made references to French landscapes through elements such as formal esplanades, ellipses, terraces, and pavilions.

The unimproved West Park sites were flat, swampy, and dreary. According to Jenney, the natural landscapes did not present "a single suggestion for the design of the future park," and "lacked a single tree worthy of preservation." 1 Jenney relied on his engineering expertise to address these difficult site conditions. The Douglas Park site was so swampy that Jenney had truckloads of sand and manure brought in from the Chicago Stock Yards to amend the soil. In addition, Jenney included a lagoon in each of the three park plans not only to provide beautiful scenery, but also to function as reservoirs, helping to alleviate drainage problems in marshy areas.

Due to budget constraints, the West Park Commission built the parks in phases, and Jenney's plans were only partially realized. Despite the slow pace, by 1877 each of the three sites had officially opened some acreage to the public. By the early 1880s, Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas parks each had lawns, trees, winding paths, rustic pavilions, benches, a small conservatory, and a lagoon with rowboats available for park patrons.

In 1885, Danish immigrant Jens Jensen, now recognized as dean of the Prairie style in landscape architecture and leader of the Midwestern conservation movement, began working as a laborer for the West Park Commission. Soon promoted to foreman, Jensen laid out a formal garden with exotic plants and was "quite proud of it." In 1888, however, after observing that "foreign plants didn't take kindly to our Chicago's soil," he "went out into the woods with a team and wagon," carting and wildflowers and transplanting them in Union Park, then the West Park System's headquarters. Although few park visitors had seen a wildflower garden before, Jensen's American Garden became quite popular. Working his way up through the park system, Jensen became superintendent of Humboldt Park in 1895. Unfortunately, the West Park Commission was then entrenched in corruption. After refusing to participate in political graft, Jensen was fired for the first time in 1900.

1. West Chicago Park Commission, Third Annual Report of the West Chicago Park Commissioners, Chicago: 1872, p. 18