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August 2008 Issue

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Restoration Illinois

Jens Jensen in 2008
How is the master’s legacy holding on in a vastly changed Chicago?

By Adam Regn Arvidson, ASLA

Jens Jensen in 2008

A few years ago, a stone council ring in Chicago’s Columbus Park was in shambles. The piers were tilted or overturned. The curved stone seat segments were scattered about on the ground, some broken in half. According to Julia Bachrach, a Chicago Park District historian, “It was like an archaeological ruin.”

The ring was originally designed by Jens Jensen, a landscape architect who practiced both privately and as superintendent of one of Chicago’s park districts from the 1890s through the mid-20th century. Jensen is larger than life in the Windy City. His works pop up all over the metro area and have been fodder for books, art exhibitions, historic preservation proceedings, and lawsuits. He is considered by some to be the quintessential prairie-style landscape architect, having created a body of work perfectly appropriate to the Midwestern prairies—one to which Chicago and its present-day designers are heirs.

The state of the Columbus Park council ring, therefore, was something of an embarrassment, especially since it is the only one Jensen ever designed in a Chicago park. So Bachrach landed a Save America’s Treasures grant and hired local firm Wolff Landscape Architecture to restore this seminal work. But almost 90 years have passed since Jensen sited that ring, and with that passing of time comes changes in standards, public expectations, patterns of use, and available funding. This is true of any old design, making historic restoration far less cut and dried than digging up old plans and hiring a contractor. Landscape architects must add an element of pertinence—functional and social pertinence. Robert E. Grese, ASLA, who literally wrote the book on Jensen (Jens Jensen, Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens), says it best: “You have [Jensen] landscapes that are nearing 75 years old, like an old grandfather, and people are trying to figure out how to perpetuate them.”

In Chicagoland, where Jensen designs are seemingly everywhere (and therefore come with varying levels of integrity, recognition, and funding), landscape architects are dealing with them in myriad ways. From faithful restorations to contemporary interventions to making the most of bad situations, designers are finding ways of reintroducing Chicagoans to their prairie-style forebear. Jensen is coming back—not exactly the same, but pretty close.

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Restoration New Jersey

Bringing Back Olmsted’s Plantings
Extensive records enabled us to rehabilitate an 1899 park much as the Olmsted firm saw it.

By Faye Harwell, ASLA, and Brad Garner, ASLA

Bringing Back Olmsted’s Plantings

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. wrote: “A park is a work of art, designed to produce certain effects upon the mind.... There should be nothing in it, absolutely nothing—not a foot of surface nor a spear of grass—which does not represent study, design...and effect ...with reference to that end.” Historic and cultural landscapes reverberate with echoes of a glorious past, often blurred by urban decay, benign neglect, and degraded ecosystems. When landscape architects rise to the challenge of bringing these special places back to life, contemporary design gestures are sometimes added as a new cultural “layer” on well-remembered places. In other situations, especially with places on state or national historic registers, a given landscape needs rehabilitation to its known historic condition.

But what does “rehabilitation” really mean? In many cases, no drawings by the original landscape architect exist. One such example is Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, designed by Olmsted and masterfully rehabilitated by the Prospect Park Alliance’s Christian Zimmerman, ASLA. Photographs, writings, and vestiges of landscape on the ground were all that remained as traces of the original design.

In contrast, for Branch Brook Park in the city of Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, available documentation was extensive. Such a wealth of existing documentation can be both a blessing and a curse. Despite volumes of existing data, interpretation is still required, and the task can be daunting. Ample documentation can provide a clear path to the original designers’ intent, but it takes time to sift through and understand.

Where the design intent can be accommodated while providing for change, there seems little justification for abandoning the original work of art in favor of something new for its own sake, especially in those cases where the provenance of the work is known and its value nationally recognized. Our firm, along with our team, clients, and the New Jersey State Historic Preservation officer, determined it was appropriate to bring the original design of Branch Brook Park’s lake edges back to life to the greatest possible extent, rather than creating a more typical riparian restoration. For us, it was the first time we encountered so much information about one project. Because of frequent requests and commissions to rehabilitate historic landscapes, our firm set out to develop an approach we could repeat when there is an abundance of available data and that other landscape architects could use as well. As part of this process, an understanding of the original design intent was only the beginning.

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