Jens Jensen was born in Denmark, and was conscripted into the Prussian Army after the Schleswig invasion of his country. He moved to the United States after being trained as an engineer and dabbling in garden design in Europe during his service. Jensen eventually went into garden and landscape design full-time.
Upon arriving in the U.S., Jens Jensen worked in Florida, and then at Luther College in Iowa, before moving to Chicago. There he was a labourer for the West Park Commission, and was soon promoted to foreman. During this time, Jens Jensen was allowed to design and plant a garden of exotic flowers. When the garden withered and died, he travelled into the surrounding prairie and found native wild-flowers, which he transplanted into a corner of Union Park, creating what became the American Garden in 1888.
While employed by Chicago park system, Jensen was appointed superintendent of the 200-acre Humboldt Park in 1895. By the late 1890s, the West Parks Commission was entrenched in typical Chicago-style corruption. After refusing to participate in political graft, Jensen was ousted by a dishonest park board in 1900. He was eventually reinstated and in 1905 he was appointed as general superintendent of the entire West Park System in Chicago. Jens Jensen’s design work for the city of Chicago can be seen at Lincoln Park, Columbus Park, and Douglas Park.
In the 1910s, Jensen played a role in building support for the partial preservation of the Indiana Dunes sand dune ecosystem, which is near Chicago.
In his later years, Jens Jensen designed the Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Springfield, Illinois. This plan was completed in 1935 and its living features were planted in 1936-1939.
Jens Jensen was admired by Edsel Ford, who hired him to design gardens at his homes in Michigan and Maine, and also did landscape-design for Henry Ford, Edsel’s father, at his estate.
Jensen is known for his “prairie style” design work. This would often consist of open spaces and pathways, which allowed one to stay in the shade while viewing the light. Not only did he use native plants, but also materials too. Most of his water features use slabs of limestone stacked up to recreate the natural river systems of the Mid-West. Much of his designs focused around views from certain places where he would leave openings in the dense under stories he was known for planting. Jens never created paths going in straight lines to their destinations; he disliked inorganic lines that connected places like they were nodes. He said of the vast formal gardens of France that “men with little intellect and plenty of money who, for the sake of popularity, will turn their gardens into museums of freaks where even the stalwart moon-shiner would hesitate to pass through at the midnight hour.”
In 1920 he retired from the park system and started his own landscape architecture practice. He worked on private estates and municipal parks throughout the U.S. He was commissioned by Eleanor and Edsel Ford for four residences, three in Michigan and one in Maine, between 1922 and 1935.
A major Jens Jensen landscaping project was at Gaukler Point, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House designed by architect Albert Kahn in 1929, on the shores of Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan. Jensen executed the master plan of the estate, and designed its gardens. He employed his original “long view” scheme, which gives visitors a glimpse of the residence down the long meadow after the passing the entry gates, then only brief partial views along the long drive, and only at the end revealing the entire main house. The Gaukler Point gardens and residence are now a public museum, and appear on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1922, Jensen designed the gardens for Edsel and Eleanor’s summer estate called Skylands in Bar Harbor, Maine. Jens Jensen did landscape-design work for Edsel Ford’s two other Michigan residences, including at “Haven Hill” between 1922 and 1935. Haven Hill is situated within the Highland Recreation Area in south-eastern Michigan, and has been designated as Michigan State Historical Landmark and a Michigan State Natural Preserve. Jensen’s landscape elements, which incorporate tree, plant and animal life, combine to brilliantly represent aesthetics, history and nature.
For Clara and Henry Ford, Jensen employed his proprietary “Delayed View” approach in designing the arrival at the residence of their estate, Fair Lane, in Dearborn, Michigan,. Instead of proceeding straight to the house or even seeing it, the entrance drive leads visitors through the estate’s dense woodland areas. Bends in the drive, planted on the curves’ inside arc with large trees give a feeling of a natural reason for the turn, and obscure any long view. Suddenly, the visitor is propelled out of the forest and into the open space where the residence is presented fully in view in front of them. This idea of wandering was one which Jens put forth in almost all of his designs. Expansive meadows and gardens make up the larger landscape, with naturalistic masses of flowers surrounding the house. The largest axial meadow, the “Path of the Setting Sun” is aligned so that during summer solstice the setting sun glows through a certain parting of the trees at its end. The boathouse, with stonework cliffs designed by Jensen, allowed Henry Ford to travel on the Rouge River in his electric boat. Currently, 72 acres of the original estate are preserved as a historic landscape, together with the house, which is now a designated National Historic Landmark and considered to be a museum.
Jensen did other projects for Henry Ford including: The Dearborn Inn, Dearborn, Michigan, in 1931 (architect Albert Kahn, the first airport hotel in the country and National Historic Landmark); the Henry Ford Hospital; the Greenfield Village historic re-creation and its Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn; and the Ford Pavilion at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. In 1923 he designed Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on a 19-acre area on Lake Michigan. A number of Jensen’s landscape-designs are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including The Jens Jensen House and Studio, Rosewood Park, the May Theilgaard Watts House (architect: John S. Van Bergen), The A.G. Becker Property (architect: Howard Van Doren Shaw), The Samuel Holmes House (architect: Robert Seyfarth) and the Harold Florshiem estate (architect: Ernest Grunsfeld), all of which are located in Highland Park, Illinois where Jensen had once lived.
In 1935, after the death of his wife, Jensen moved from Highland Park, Illinois to Ellison Bay, Wisconsin where he established “The Clearing“, which he called a “school of the soil” to train future landscape architects. Jensen’s school is now a preserved open-space and and serves as an education-centre in the folk school tradition. During his extensive career, Jens Jensen worked with many well-known architects including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Maher and Albert Kahn. Jens Jensen died at his home, “The Clearing,” on October 1, 1951, at the age of 91.
Today, Jens Jensen’s gardens are being restored due to resurrections of his plans. Jens Jensen was one of the most influential designers to popularise native gardens. He showed that not only could beautiful gardens have native species, but could have native species in their respective places as they would be without human integration or involvement. He taught us that beauty does not have to come from a tulip from Holland or a maple from Japan; it can come from the wild reaches of our backyards or state parks. He summed up his philosophy by saying: “Every plant has fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping.”