From 'green' to silver screen

Documentary on Jens Jensen highlights landscape architect nonpareil

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Danish born Jens Jensen was a tall man with a strong personality and a large mustache who believed nature belonged to everyone, not just the well-to-do.

Because of these democratic personal and professional values, the now-iconic Jensen (1860-1951) rose from street sweeper to "dean" of landscape architecture and became a pioneering conservationist. A documentary on his life and times, The Living Green by Alan Rogers, demonstrates how Jensen battled corruption and unbridled industrial expansion to make the modern city livable by bringing "the living green" into the wretched lives of Chicago's workers.

At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at the Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St., admirers of his life's work can dig deeper into it during a private preview of the new documentary.

Afterward, an interactive panel discussion will explore what Jensen's work means today. Producers Carey Lundin and Mark Frazel, from the Chicago production company Viva Lundin Productions, will be in attendance.

Tickets are $20 per person, and proceeds benefit the Pleasant Home Foundation.

"Although Jensen is not credited with any work on Pleasant Home or Mills Park, which is the original lot for the house, he did work very closely with a lot of the architects who did do it, and he did a lot of work in the area, including the design of Scoville, Taylor and Rehm parks," says Heidi Ruehle-May, executive director of the Pleasant Home Foundation. "It's a great opportunity to show this documentary because a lot of our support, and a lot of people interested in a space like Pleasant Home, tend to have a pretty keen interest in landscape architecture and Jens Jensen as well. So it seems like a good pairing, and it is a great opportunity to have a fundraiser for our nonprofit organization."

Jensen comes alive

In The Living Green, viewers will be shown how in 1885, when Jensen, a Danish immigrant, arrived in Chicago, the "Windy City" was a fast-growing urban environment and a dreadful place to live.

Those were the days of Daniel Burnham's 1893 Columbian Exposition, which catapulted Chicago onto the world stage as a neo-classic nirvana where only the extremely wealthy could enjoy its splendor. Taken aback by that trend, Jensen was working collaboratively in Oak Park and Chicago with both Frank Lloyd Wright and architect Louis Sullivan, who were instrumental in forming the architectural Prairie School style.

In those far-reaching and formative times, the artful architectural designs they were crafting for clients in wood, brick and mortar were being mirrored in Jensen's approach to natural landscaping, demonstrated in countless public parks and naturalized spaces. Still stunning examples of his work in "renewing and civilizing powers of nature" today can be seen in Chicago's Columbus, Garfield, Humboldt, and Douglas parks, as well as the Garfield Park Conservatory.

Beyond these picturesque public spaces, Jensen also designed the landscapes of public "play" lands in smaller cities in Wisconsin, Iowa and elsewhere. In Illinois, he was in the forefront of the conservation movement that led to the creation of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the Illinois state park system and the Indiana Dunes State Park and National Lakeshore.

"Jens was the landscape architect for the city of Chicago, and Chicago touches on Oak Park, so it obviously rubbed off," said local architect, Garret Eakin. "I don't know which was first, Oak Park or Chicago, but he was quite well known and a lot of Midwesterners love his philosophy because he felt you didn't have to go to Holland to buy tulips. You could plant them in the prairies of Illinois. In fact, he promoted the beautiful plants throughout the prairies for the taking."

Jensen's dedication to the notion that "there was beauty in the landscape, and we should respect that," Eakin said, is evidenced in his curvaceous, asymmetrical landscapes that evoke a feeling of his landscapes not being man-made.

"Myself and several people on my board really appreciate the fact that in his time he made parts of the city accessible and available to people who would not normally have access to the finer things in life," said Ruehle-May. "Jens Jensen really stressed long-term conservation for future use. There is a wonderful movement happening now in modern life to bring back these thoughts and to bring back his theories on landscapes in parks, and how they were designed for everybody. There is a lot going on in Chicago right now, and that is a big part of historic preservation as well — to bring back what used to be."

An enthusiastic admirer of Jensen's work, Eakin says the parks Jensen designed are very natural, and beautiful and "just seem right" when he walks through them.

"They have color. They have texture leaf patterns. But it is a bit more subtle than a renaissance plan. The more dense our cities are becoming, the more of a need we will have for these parks to grow. His work in Oak Park is a perfect example of that."

For more information on the film, call 708-383-2654 or purchase tickets online at

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