Prairie Style in Chicago Parks
by Julia Bachrach
Chicago’s parks played an important role in the development of the Prairie style—a late 19th - and early 20th-century design expression that celebrated the natural characteristics of Midwestern landscapes. Beginning on March 11, 2019, I will be leading a three-part seminar in Wicker Park that explores this fascinating topic. Sponsored by the Wicker Park Garden Club and Advisory Council, the series will take place over three consecutive Monday evenings from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. You can register for individual sessions or the entire three-part program.
At the turn of the 20th century, a group of Progressive Chicago architects, landscape architects, artists, and craftsmen contributed to what is now considered the “Prairie School” or “Prairie style.” Many scholars credit historian H. Allen Brooks with coining the term “Prairie School” when he published his 1957 doctoral dissertation under that title. However, references to the “Prairie style” first appeared in 1915 in a bulletin by Wilhelm Miller, a University of Illinois professor and former editor of Country Life in America. Miller wrote in The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening: “The Middle West is just beginning to evolve a new style of architecture, interior decoration, and landscape gardening in an effort to create the perfect home amid the prairie states.”
Although the 36-page pamphlet is primarily devoted to landscape architecture, it makes some reference to “Prairie style” architecture. For instance, the publication highlights a couple of residences designed by William Drummond, an architect who began his career in Louis Sullivan’s office and worked on and off for Frank Lloyd Wright before establishing his own practice in 1908. As a photo caption reveals, Drummond stated that he “purposely repeated the prairie line in the roofs” of his home designs.
While Miller’s bulletin fails to provide a clear and succinct definition of “Prairie style” landscapes, it fully explores the topic through examples of projects by and interviews of the leading landscape designers who “consciously took the prairie” as inspiration for their work. The two most prominent were Ossian Cole Simonds (1855-1931) and Jens Jensen (1860-1951). Simonds, an engineering graduate from the University of Michigan, had decided to devote his career to landscape gardening in 1878, while in the midst of laying out an extension to Graceland Cemetery. Two years later, with encouragement from Bryan Lathrop, head of Graceland Cemetery’s board, Simonds began transplanting “from the wilds the common Illinois species of oak, maple, ash, hornbeam, Pepperidge, thorn apple, witch hazel, dogwood, sheep berry, elder, and the like” to the burial ground. In the early 1900s, after Lathrop became president of the Lincoln Park Board of Commissioners, Simonds was appointed Landscape Gardener for the North Side lakefront Park. In Lincoln Park, Simonds produced densely-planted landscapes—often camouflaging buildings with masses of native vegetation or tucking them under a gently sloping berm.
Jens Jensen, who had begun working as street sweeper in the 1880s, was appointed Superintendent of the entire West Park System in 1905. A Danish immigrant, Jensen saw great beauty in the area’s natural landscapes, at a time when many Chicagoans considered them to be flat, monotonous sites with little scenic value. Jensen, Simonds, and other kindred spirits, including architect Dwight Heald Perkins, formed a group called the Saturday Afternoon Walking Club that went on hikes through natural areas and advocated for their conservation. Soon after his appointment as the parks’ chief, Jensen directed approximately $4,000,000 n improvements to Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas Parks. Jensen explained: “…of course, the primary motive was to give recreation and pleasure to the people, but the secondary motive was to inspire them with the vanishing beauty of the prairie.”
Miller’s bulletin suggested that Prairie style landscapes were not all based on the “literal restoration” of natural scenery. Some examples – especially those in urban parks “that were visited by thousands of people daily” – could be described as “conventionalized” prairie landscapes. By “conventionalized,” Miller refers to spaces that included formal elements and straight lines. For instance, at Humboldt Park, Jensen created a corner gateway that provided a transition from the busy city street into his naturalistic landscape within the park.
Much less “conventionalized” was Jensen’s “Prairie River,” a manmade watercourse he created in Humboldt Park. Miller wrote that such waterways “epitomize the beauty of Illinois rivers.” Along the banks of the Humboldt Park Prairie River, Jensen planted arrowroot, cattails, pickerelweed, iris, water lilies, and various native sedges. The meandering waterway flowed along the west side of the park, connecting with the existing lagoon. At its south end, two small brooks that flowed over rocky cascades symbolized the source of his natural-looking waterway
Jensen’s stratified stonework was evocative of the limestone bluffs and outcroppings that edged natural Midwestern rivers, valleys, and canyons. Such stonework became one of his design signatures, and was featured in many of his most noteworthy projects. Among them is Columbus Park, which possesses some of the most intact Jensen-designed stonework Recognized as Jensen’s masterpiece and designated as a National Historic Landmark, Columbus Park features two waterfalls that were restored by the Chicago Park District in the early 1990s. The park also includes original limestone paths and a circular stone council ring—another one of Jensen’s favorite features.
Jensen severed his ties with Chicago’s parks in 1921, but his influence didn’t end at that time. Alfred Caldwell (1903-1998), Jensen’s disciple, worked for the Chicago Park District for several years in the 1930s. Working on projects that were funded by the federal Works Progress Administration, Caldwell was extremely productive. His “Prairie style” legacy remains at Riis Park and at Burnham Park’s Promontory Point, which was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Most extraordinary of all is the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool in Lincoln Park—also a designated National Historic Landmark. This composition of native plants, Prairie River, limestone paths and ledges, council ring, Japanese-inspired gate, and Prairie style shelter pays homage to Jensen, but with Caldwell’s own artful stamp.
I hope this overview has whetted your appetite and that you’ll consider participating in my Prairie in the Parks seminar! You can sign up for individual sessions, or the whole series.
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