Architecture is more than just designing buildings; it is also about the landscaping. One of the most influential landscape architects was Jens Jensen. Jensen was a unique American landscape architect because of his Danish identity and background which he showed by exhibiting a Danish style in the public parks and private homes he designed in the Midwestern region of the United States. In analyzing Jensen’s life, I will illustrate how his Danish upbringing influenced his work, how he incorporated the natural beauty of America, and how his beliefs led to disagreements with another well-known prairie style architect. I will continue with a discussion about Jensen’s work with Jane Addams, and their initiative to help fellow immigrants in America. In his prairie style landscape architectural concept, Jens Jensen both preserved and adapted Danish ideals of beauty to fit an American landscape, and showed how these values can change the common man’s life for the better, foreshadowing modern Danish social welfare ideology.

Jens Jensen was born on September 13, 1860, on his family farm just outside of the village of Dybboel in the Danish province of Schleswig. Jensen’s family was wealthy; they owned a house and large acreage of land. Landscapes Artist in America describes “that many of Jensen’s surviving clients speak of him as ‘aristocratic'; while his family was not titled, they had an extremely secure place in a social order which was, at that time, quite rigidly stratified”.1Leonard K. Eaton and Jens Jensen, Landscape Artist in America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964), 2–3. A major influence from Jensen’s childhood came from the area around Dybboel, which is located in Southern Schleswig on the Jutland peninsula of Europe. The family farmland, which he grew up on, influenced his idea of natural beauty. He wrote about his upbringing, walking to school, and hunting outings with his father, and how these surroundings inspired his life’s work in landscape architecture.2Dave Egan and William H. Tishler. “Jens Jensen, Native Plants, and the Concept of Nordic Superiority.” Landscape Journal (18.1(1999): 11–29.), 4. Around the time of his birth, Germany was beginning to unite its native speakers under Prussian rule, and two of those targets were the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. This led to the invasion by Austrian-Prussian forces in 1864, and one of the major battles was fought in Jensen’s backyard at the Dybboel mill. Jensen mentions that one of his earliest memories was looking back as his father’s estate was being burned to the ground.3Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 5–6.

The resulting peace treaty led to the transfer of Schleswig and Holstein into Prussian control and the Prussians began a process of Germanization of the Danish people in the two provinces. Jensen became a Prussian citizen, which meant he had to attend a primary school where the lessons were taught in German. This led his parents to send him to a folk school in Vinding, Denmark, where he was taught to appreciate science, literature, and art, allowing him to have an open mind encountering many different thinkers when he eventually lived in Chicago. It also led him to hold on to his Danish identity early on in his life, which became incredibly important when he faced assimilation in America.

One of the most important consequences of being under German rule was the compulsory military services where he realized that he wanted to do something more in his life. He was assigned to the German capital of Berlin where he was first introduced to the idea of urban parks and the works of Peter Joseph Lenne.4Ibid., 8–9. His time in Berlin allowed him to experience the French and English garden architecture, which was based on a large scale park with many statues and fountains that required large amounts of upkeep and were usually in disrepair. At the same time, he was able to see the small gardens on the outside of the French and English parks, which were simpler. Jensen described it as “wandering through the woodlands beyond these English parks to meet a little garden enclosed within the deep shadow of the forest.”5Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 9. These small gardens never left his mind and were part of his designs for the rest of his life. After his service had ended, he left Denmark for America in 1884. Leonard K. Eaton eventually described Jensen’s time period under German rule stating, “while he was devoted to his adopted country, he remained a Dane in his inmost soul”.6Ibid., 7.

Jensen left Denmark for many reasons, but the two most influential were that his family was unwilling to sanction his marriage to Anne Marie Hansen and the change in government rule. His family disapproved of his marriage because Miss Hansen came from a family of small farmers, which his parents believed beneath their class and his decision to leave created tremendous upheaval in his family. The feelings were so strong, Jensen never spoke to his father again, yet he continued to correspond with his mother until she passed away. The second reason is that he did not want to live under Prussian rule for the rest of his life. His experiences in the Prussian Army, and the Prussian civil administration led him to this decision as he disliked the rigidness of the system and the lack of control over his own life as he was always at the will of the Prussian authorities. He desired freedom, and the ability to follow his own path. Jensen found the value of freedom in America and it was one of the main reasons to emigrate, and fought to protect that right.

Jensen arrived at Castle Garden, which was the precursor to Ellis Island in October of 1884, and he soon relocated to Florida to work on a celery plantation. While there he married his fiancé Anne Marie Hansen. He eventually relocated to Iowa and worked as a farm laborer before settling in Chicago where through hard work as a laborer in the park service and his ability to envision urban rural settings, he rose to become the superintendent of Humboldt Park, one of the largest parks on the west side of the city at the time.7Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 12–13. This began his career in landscape architecture and his love and study of American flora. 

Jensen did many things for American culture with his lasting impacts in landscape architecture. He decided that he did not want to be a farmer for the rest of his life, that he wanted to do something more than that.8Ibid., 11.  In Landscapes Artist in America, Eaton mentions that Jensen’s connections with the old country were strong and that he had to maintain his language and culture through great personal effort. He was intensely Danish in an effort to keep his heritage, the result being that “Jensen was more Danish than many natives of Copenhagen”.9Ibid., 12. This fact is important to understand his life’s influences and their eventual impact on his architectural style in regards to American culture through Chicago’s parks.

Jens Jensen’s first major work was redesigning the West Side park systems of Chicago. He first worked as a street sweeper in Chicago and on the weekends he travelled to the Midwest countryside, influencing his use of the natural Midwest flora. He eventually was appointed as landscape designer in 1888, beginning his career as a public parks designer. His unique style was apparent from the beginning due to his love of natural beauty, which he developed during his time in Europe. This was reflected in his design of the American Garden in Chicago’s Union Park, which “was composed entirely of native plants, including trees, shrubs, and wildflower perennials.”10Cheryl Kent, “A Force of Nature: The Life and Work of Jens Jensen”. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. (63.2 (2004): 225–227.), 225. Kent stated that it was the first garden design of its time and was unique. This began his desire to use natural plants when constructing the garden or buildings design. This love of natural landscape led him to advocate during the large population explosion in Chicago for more land to be used as parks, and to have a park system to promote good health.11Kent, “A Force of Nature,” 225. This idea of creating good health was important to Jensen and he championed the idea of providing buildings for all the public to use. In 1905, Jensen was appointed to the position of Superintendent of all of the West Side Parks in Chicago and was happy to provide such buildings. In “his new capacity, he was able to build the community parks he had envisioned, including features like free public bathing facilities and programs for inexpensive hot meals and classes in English”.12Ibid. This was common among Scandinavian immigrants who never had any support in their home countries and so one of their main goals was to give the common folk a healthy environment to live in. They wanted to help fellow immigrants live and prosper in their new country and many were eventually replicated back in the Scandinavian countries later in the twentieth century through the creation of the welfare state.

The idea of a welfare state is having the state provide for basic necessities and contribute to the populace’s general health and happiness. This idea was used directly in Franklin Park through not only Jensen’s ability to create natural beauty, but also his ability to provide public buildings for the poor. In this park, even though it was a meager eight and a half acres, he was able to build all of the public and recreational buildings while retaining the natural sense of being on the Illinois prairie by changing and manipulating the elevation of the land.13Ibid. His main purpose as superintendent was redesigning the existing parks of Garfield, Douglas, and Humboldt.  In his redesigning, he never lost his use of nature in their layouts, which were influenced by his love of the prairie and natural farmlands. As Jensen once said, “I am only a farm boy”.14Sid Telfer, The Jens Jensen I Knew (Ellison Bay, WI: Driftwood Farms, 1982.), 11.

Jensen never lost his connection to Denmark and it shows in his remarkable designs of these parks. His ability to create a prairie-like river, which was lined with natural plants and vegetation to create a sense of wildness, was rooted in his Danish education. He was able to create large pools at the end of these rivers so that his desire to provide the Chicago population a place to come and swim in the parks was fulfilled. His openness to other ideas led him to experiment in including different types of sculptures, one in particular by Charles Mulligan who designed Home. Home was not a sculpture of a national hero on horseback which had been the norm, but a mythological portrayal of a father and child.15Kent, “A Force of Nature,” 226. The value of the family and nature was common in Danish-Americans. Some of them felt that nature was a dangerous place and it had many mythical aspects, which led many to believe it should be honored and protected.  His ability to plan was a great attribute in his life and it showed as Jensen argued for buying and preserving large amounts of land just outside of the city for what he called a ‘Proposed System of Forests, Parks and Country Pleasure Roads.’ Even though this was not adopted in Jensen’s time as superintendent, it was later adopted by Daniel Burnham in his Plan of Chicago.16Ibid., 226. His Danish ideals of preserving nature led him to advocate this plan, and influenced Chicago’s development. In addition to his Danish ideals with sculptures, he also fought for immigrant rights. In Chicago, Jensen met with and influenced Jane Addams and her Hull House. Jensen’s fight against nativism showed his Danish devotion to social equality that “for several decades, Jensen and this group of Chicago intellectuals actually served as a bulwark against nativism. Jane Addams and her colleagues at Hull House saw social action as a means of assimilating newly-arrived immigrants to America”.17Egan and Tishler. “Jens Jensen,” 17. Jensen realized that, as an immigrant from Denmark, all immigrants should at least get the opportunity to grow and prosper, and that they all offer value to America. He valued the idea of being a nation of immigrants so much that he once said “every nation develops its own art. We are young as a nation and still in the process of crystallization. Every race or nationality brings to us some of its customs and habits which are gradually but surely being molded together, ultimately to form one national character. The environs amongst which the immigrants settle lend their great influence–sung by the poet, painted by the painter and idealized by the gardener”.18Ibid. These ideas show how much Jensen’s own experience as an immigrant has influenced his beliefs in designing gardens, but also in interacting with the other immigrants coming to America. This is a common occurrence involving Scandinavian Americans in helping fellow immigrants and to ensure their survival in this new world. One sees that Jensen has accepted his Danish-American identity as he uses the term “we are young as a nation” highlighting how identity shift within immigrants to America and the blending of where an immigrant came from and where he is. He soon entered the private design practice through his relationship with the wealthy Ford family of Dearborn, Michigan, and the Rosenwald family of Chicago. These private works were “less gratifying to Jensen than the public parks, but it was lucrative and he saw it as a base on which the landscape profession could be expanded”.19Kent, “A Force of Nature,” 226. He designed multiple Ford estates, the various Ford Company Buildings, and the Henry Ford Hospital.20Ibid., 226. He wrote that “the home is sacred to those so fortunate as to have it; it is their own, the most precious and beautiful possession any mortal being can claim”.21Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 81. These words were typical of his Danish heritage and their love for house and hearth; he incorporated that concept into every one of his private home landscape designs. In his design of the Ford property, the road meandered through a wooded area, before opening to a prairie setting where the estate was centrally located. Jensen valued the privacy of a person’s home and wanted it to feel part of the land. Jensen did not limit his private home designs to rich individuals or companies but expanded it to middle class families, and a majority of his landscape designs can be found in the North Shore Neighborhood of Chicago.22Ibid. Jensen valued the idea of home ownership much like other immigrants who wanted to build a magnificent house on large lots because many struggled to acquire them back in their home country. His designs created the unique look and style of northern Chicago.Jensen’s greatest achievement was also his final step in cementing his place as a visionary landscape architect, when he designed the school in northern Wisconsin called The Clearing. He designed The Clearing to showcase the incorporation of nature and the buildings as one fluid design. When designing this masterpiece, he brought in many aspects of his heritage. For example, he used the sweetbriar rose, which bloomed in hedges on his childhood farm, and became part of the door to his log cabin.23Ibid., 21. In defending his use of natural, curving lines in his house and his designs, he talks about how straight lines have nothing to do with landscaping, that nature has no straight lines and landscaping is derived from nature.24Ibid., 24. Yet, one important factor, which Jensen never mentioned was how the area around The Clearing resembles the area in which he grew up. Lake Michigan is much like the Baltic Sea as one drives on the country roads, where the bluffs are in plain sight.25Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 213.

Jensen modeled his own school after the one which influenced his life: the Danish folk school. He stressed communal living, handicraft, and the household arts, as well as the tradition of welcoming long stays of prestigious guests and centering on the spoken word.26Ibid., 217. The Clearing was one of Jensen’s greatest achievements and kept him occupied in his later life, especially after his wife died. As written by Sid Telfer who personally knew Jensen, “Jensen was always ready for a good time, anything for excitement, company, an argument, a trip by car or a hike in the woods”.27Telfer, The Jens Jensen I Knew, 28. He always welcomed guests, even if he hardly knew them, much like other Danish-Americans, serving them coffee and treating anyone who came kindly.

Jensen was unique in regards to the time he reached his golden age of landscape architecture or when he was commissioned to produce the majority of his parks or designs. The fact that he emigrated much later in life, and had the Danish values of hard work and determination as he rose through the ranks, meant by the time he reached perfection he was over 40 years old. This allowed for Jensen to keep his principles intact and through his experience, he was able to stand firm in his style and his belief that all places should incorporate climate, terrain, and the plant materials of the native region.28Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 82. The natural stubbornness of Jensen is seen throughout the majority of the Scandinavian immigrants who settled and struggled to make the prairies of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois prosperous.

While working in Chicago, Jensen developed a relationship with the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and through their interactions one sees his Danish values.  Jensen’s relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright is a unique and personal one even though they only collaborated on the Coonley House of 1908 and the house for Mrs. Abby Longyear Roberts in Marquette, Michigan, in 1935.29Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 82. Their relationship developed through their interactions while they worked in the Steinway Hall, made frequent visits to the Ravinia Studio, and had memberships in the Dweller Club.  They both also frequently travelled to Jane Addams’ Hull House.30V. L. Russell, “You Dear Old Prima Donna: The Letters of Frank Lloyd Wright and Jens Jensen.” Landscape Journal (20.2 (2001): 141–55.), 143. Through their letters to each other, one better understands their relationship: they respected each other, yet they questioned each other’s greatness. As Wright notes, “they are both stars in their field, yet they never work together, and that they will choose to work with a lesser brilliance”.31Ibid., 144.

Through these writings back and forth, one can see how Jensen’s religion comes into his life. He is humble and tries to show Wright how to be humble about his greatness. He writes how his upbringing during the invasion and his experience with the prejudices his father showed his wife were the reasons that he was honored with his success. Jensen writes that, “We are no gods, but just humans, created in the reflection of the Great Master”.32Ibid., 244. Later in that same letter to Wright, Jensen criticizes Wright and says that he should be humble and count his blessings.33Ibid. This is reflective of the Scandinavian idea of being humble in wealth and their overall belief in religion. Scandinavians, as well as Jensen, believed in hard work, but that it all can be taken away in a second. 

Another topic which is brought up in their letters is the situation of higher education in America. Wright had multiple discussions with Jensen about founding a school. They both were influenced by their previous experiences in education. While Wright left college without a degree, Jensen never went to college but instead was influenced by his Danish folk school. Jensen thought that learning was about more than books and lectures; one should experience nature, which through his own works one can see he lived this value. He always tried to present a natural and real picture to his audience, the general populace.34Ibid., 145-146.

These discussions, and the death of Jensen’s wife, led Jensen to found his own landscape school, The Clearing, which Jensen described as “a place where rural life bordered on the wilderness an outpost facing the setting sun for there was the hope of tomorrow”.35Ibid., 147. He envisioned a place of higher learning by experiencing the natural beauty that existed at his home in northern Wisconsin. There was, however, a difference in their styles of teaching. Wright went with more of a university style because of his pursuit of an official title at the School of Architecture, while Jensen wanted to reach a broad range of the population, which exemplifies his Danish roots in his acceptance of the broad range of people, and how he viewed nature as belonging to everyone and not just a few people. His folk school taught him to cooperate with the general populace in order to create a community and he passed this along to his students by making them go out and participate in community and regional conservation organizations. This was a common mentality through Scandinavian-American communities in forming co-ops and their belief that people should help out their community. His impact on conservation led to many parks and preserves in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. He always reminded the politicians of those states that they had a grave responsibility to protect nature. 36Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 227.

Wright and Jensen even had a difference in how they referred to their students, while Wright called his students ‘apprentices,’ Jensen called them students. The end of their friendship came during World War II when Wright asked for Jensen’s signature on his petition titled Broadacre City Model. This was a plan to try and keep many Japanese and German designs alive and protected.37Russell, “You Dear Old Prima Donna,” 150–151. Jensen’s experience with Germany led him to reject this model as he did not see it as a necessity. This shows directly how his Danish upbringing, his distrust of Germany, and his service in the German Army led him to lose a close friend. 

Jens Jensen had a lasting influence on Chicago and the landscape architectural field. His history of being raised on a farm, his education in the Vinding Folk School, and his time in Berlin makes up an important part of his Danish heritage. Jensen shows this influence through his designs of the public parks, the private estates, and his school The Clearing, also in his relationships with Frank Lloyd Wright and Jane Addams. Jensen not only changed the landscape of Chicago’s park system but also influenced Americans like Walter Burley Griffin, a fellow landscape architect. Griffin’s designs completely embraced the prairie style of Jensen and they both completely rejected the European design. Jensen’s own experience in the large cost of maintaining the French gardens in Berlin influenced him to create easy, maintainable gardens with natural designs and Griffin embraced it.38Walter L. Creese and John S. Garner, The Midwest in American Architecture (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1991), 217. These men would be acquainted with each other as they were both members of the City Club of Chicago and the Chicago Architectural Club. These meetings profoundly shaped Griffin’s life through Jensen’s belief in the open, horizontal landscape, and the use of indigenous plants to recreate the prairie landscape. Their bond was created through this mutual inspirational aspect of their beliefs. A viewer can see Jensen’s own values in Griffins designs.39Creese and Garner, The Midwest in American Architecture, 222.

Jens Jensen lived a long and fulfilling life and changed the Midwest landscape and American culture while bringing a unique view of the Danish immigrant. His experiences were much like his fellow Scandinavians as he, for example, fought for the common man, was stubborn in his ways, yet humble with his success. Jensen’s ability to use his Danish values and ideas of beauty changed American and Danish-American culture and showed how he kept his Danish roots and beliefs in his heart and mind.


Brooks, Allen. The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1972.

Creese, Walter L. and John S. Garner. The Midwest in American Architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1991.

Eaton, Leonard K. and Jens Jensen. Landscape Artist in America. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964.

Egan, Dave and William H. Tishler. “Jens Jensen, Native Plants, and the Concept of Nordic Superiority.” Landscape Journal (18.1(1999): 11-29.)

Kent, Cheryl. “A Force of Nature: The Life and Work of Jens Jensen.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. (63.2 (2004): 225-227.)

Russell, V. L. “You Dear Old Prima Donna: The Letters of Frank Lloyd Wright and Jens Jensen.” Landscape Journal (20.2 (2001): 141–55.)

Telfer, Sid. The Jens Jensen I Knew. Ellison Bay, WI: Driftwood Farms, 1982.

References   [ + ]

1. Leonard K. Eaton and Jens Jensen, Landscape Artist in America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964), 2–3.
2. Dave Egan and William H. Tishler. “Jens Jensen, Native Plants, and the Concept of Nordic Superiority.” Landscape Journal (18.1(1999): 11–29.), 4.
3. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 5–6.
4. Ibid., 8–9.
5. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 9.
6. Ibid., 7.
7. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 12–13.
8. Ibid., 11.
9. Ibid., 12.
10. Cheryl Kent, “A Force of Nature: The Life and Work of Jens Jensen”. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. (63.2 (2004): 225–227.), 225.
11. Kent, “A Force of Nature,” 225.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Sid Telfer, The Jens Jensen I Knew (Ellison Bay, WI: Driftwood Farms, 1982.), 11.
15. Kent, “A Force of Nature,” 226.
16. Ibid., 226.
17. Egan and Tishler. “Jens Jensen,” 17.
18. Ibid.
19. Kent, “A Force of Nature,” 226.
20. Ibid., 226.
21. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 81.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid., 21.
24. Ibid., 24.
25. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 213.
26. Ibid., 217.
27. Telfer, The Jens Jensen I Knew, 28.
28. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 82.
29. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 82.
30. V. L. Russell, “You Dear Old Prima Donna: The Letters of Frank Lloyd Wright and Jens Jensen.” Landscape Journal (20.2 (2001): 141–55.), 143.
31. Ibid., 144.
32. Ibid., 244.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid., 145-146.
35. Ibid., 147.
36. Eaton and Jensen, Landscape Artist in America, 227.
37. Russell, “You Dear Old Prima Donna,” 150–151.
38. Walter L. Creese and John S. Garner, The Midwest in American Architecture (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1991), 217.
39. Creese and Garner, The Midwest in American Architecture, 222.