“We all need the living green or we’ll shrivel up inside,” the Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen once said. “To make the modern city livable is the task of our times.”
I think of those words when I stroll through Columbus Park, a 135-acre urban idyll in the Austin neighborhood completed by Jensen in 1920. About three blocks south of Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken and just half a mile north of the Eisenhower Expressway’s roar, the park is nothing if not “living green”: gentle slopes, bluffs, meadows, and a large lagoon that wanders like a prairie river. A stately Mediterranean revival refectory sits waterside—a touch of Venice on the Far West Side.
Though he’s not as famous as Frederick Law Olmsted—the designer of the South Side’s Washington and Jackson Parks (as well as a certain well-known park in New York City)—Jensen was a bona fide, self-made genius who embraced his setting. He eschewed the formal, manicured landscapes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their traditional flower gardens and walking paths, and once remarked that such spaces were made by “men with little intellect and plenty of money.” Urban parks, he said, should feel more like nature.
The six-foot-tall, amply mustachioed Jensen was born in Dybbøl, Denmark, and came to Chicago in 1884 at the age of 24. During a 35-year career at the old West Park Commission, he rose from laborer to superintendent, significantly reshaping and improving three major parks. In Humboldt Park, Jensen added lagoons, islands, and a small river and hired the Prairie school architecture firm Schmidt, Garden & Martin to design the refectory and boathouse, a spectacular open-air pavilion. In Garfield Park, he brought in natural plantings and replaced a ragged Victorian greenhouse with the now-iconic conservatory. In Douglas Park, he again worked with Schmidt, Garden & Martin to design the Flower Hall, a quiet, contemplative space that feels a world away from West Ogden Avenue, a few steps north.
But it is Columbus Park—the only major Chicago green space Jensen designed in its entirety—that remains the designer’s pièce de résistance. I can gaze at its beauty for hours and never get bored.