The Changing Landscape of Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Bean Carroll
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2006

The Prairie School of Landscape Design, Part One

The post-Civil War era proved highly beneficial for Chicago. The city had become the most active railroad hub in the country and a center for industries such as meat-packing, lumber and milling, manufacturing of farm equipment and retail trade. These factors made Chicago economically very strong but brought great social challenges. The city found itself flooded with large numbers of immigrant workers and there was little relief from the crowded, unsanitary living conditions.

The economic and social situation spurred many initiatives to improve living conditions for children and workers. The expansion of the city and the resulting destruction of natural landscapes covered in trees and prairies also saw the beginning of a conservation movement. Responding to these pressures, in 1899 the Chicago City Council organized a Special Parks Commission responsible for completing a study of the parks and recreational areas. O.C. Simonds, considered to be the father of the Prairie School of landscape design, was involved in this commission. Jens Jensen, though not initially named to the commission, later became an important member. This interest in the parks led to the support of Simonds’ work at Lincoln Park and Jensen’s work for the West Park System.

The most important feature of the Prairie School of landscape design is an emphasis on the use of native plants and local landforms to enhance the natural beauty of the region. The plants used most often were hawthorns, bur oaks, crabapples, prairie rose and the low rose. Also found in prairie plantings were those that had been commonly considered to be weeds, such as sumac, elderberry, goldenrod and asters. Other plants used frequently in their landscape designs were purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan and phlox. American elms, white and red oaks and sugar maples were used as canopy trees, while viburnums, hawthorns, crabapples and gray dogwood were grouped in irregular masses along edges of curving paths or lawns.

The horizontal nature of the prairie was a key element of the Prairie Style. As demonstrated in the architecture of individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright, the mostly flat and sometimes gentle roll of the prairie inspired designs that emphasized broad horizontal lines. These lines were repeated in the buildings of the Prairie architects and the gardens of the Prairie landscapers. The hawthorn and the crabapple were native species that Simonds and Jensen used as “symbols of Midwestern landscape.” The horizontal structure of their branches mirrored the broad prairie horizon.

Another feature of Prairie School landscapes was repetition of shapes and certain dominant plants. Both Simonds and Jensen felt that the use of repetition would create harmony between their designed gardens and the surrounding landscape. They also believed in the importance of highlighting the seasonal changes in the garden.

The interaction of the sky with the garden was used as an important design element. Simonds and Jensen were particularly sensitive to the alternating bright and hazy sunlight in the Midwest. Simonds noted that the design of the garden against the sky allows “generous open space on his canvas for nature to fill in with clouds and sunshine, with stars and moonlight.” Both landscapers were known to design paths that led to views of sunsets and sunrises in their gardens. Goldenrod was sometimes planted at the end of a path with a sunset view where its golden yellow flowers would be highlighted by the low angle of the sun.

This school of design, with its emphasis on conservation and respect for the natural prairie landscape, had great influence on many of the parks and private gardens around Chicago. O.C. Simonds’ best-known work was the creation of the beautiful landscapes of Graceland Cemetery and his extension of Lincoln Park. He was also active on the North Shore and designed many properties in Winnetka. The most commonly known is the landscaping of Christ Church on Sheridan Road. He was also responsible for the planning of the Hibbard and Kuppenheimer estates and the grounds of the Indian Hill Club. Jens Jensen made his mark around Chicago with his council rings and designs for Columbus Park and Humboldt Park, among others. Jensen was involved in the design of some Winnetka estates, most notably the August Magnus House by architect Robert Spencer. The next article in our series will take a closer look at some of these local landscapes.

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