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Charles Smith would not advocate tearing down the Harley Clarke mansion, but to this landscape contractor whose eye is always on the beauty of nature, the house is but an adjunct to the historic Jens Jensen gardens there.
A Danish-American landscape architect, Mr. Jensen (1860-1951), originated the “prairie style” of landscaping and designed with a twofold purpose: preserving as much nature as possible in an urban setting and making nature (the “living green”) accessible to everyone – period.
He designed more than 600 landscapes, all of which emphasized the necessity of nature for those living in urban areas. Two of these are public gardens in Evanston – the Shakespeare Garden and the Harley Clarke garden. Mahoney Park is in nearby Kenilworth.
The rough footprints of two Jensen landscapes at 2603 Sheridan Road – the 1926 overall plantings and the 1937 wildflower garden – remain but are marred by lack of care. Even when the now-shuttered mansion was home to the Evanston Art Center, the City did little to maintain the grounds.
“People have lost sight of the value of Jens Jensen,” Mr. Smith said as he took two RoundTable reporters on tours of two Jensen gardens – Mahoney Park in Kenilworth and the gardens around the Harley Clarke mansion.
Mr. Smith is one of several residents who are working not only to restore the gardens around the mansion but also to revive the philosophy that animated Mr. Jensen’s designs: “‘Be in nature, traverse nature and enjoy nature’ – provide not just an oppor-tunity to observe nature but to commune with nature.,” Mr. Smith said.
A Jens Jensen garden, Mr. Smith said, will not be a flower garden. It will try to mimic nature by using native plants and trees, layered and textured as nature allows them to grow. But a Jensen garden also incorporates socializing – a field to play, paths to roam, council rings to sit and talk around a fire.
Both Kenilworth’s Mahoney Park and Evanston’s Harley Clarke gardens retain the Jensen design philosophy. But where Kenilworth’s Mahoney park glows with the serenity of both care and use, Evanston’s Clarke gardens are a tangle of overgrowth and neglect.
Mr. Smith has spent a lot of his time voluntarily working on the grounds, clearing away unwanted and invasive plants and trees. Others have joined his cause of restoring the Jensen gardens and legacy at the Harley Clarke mansion. In late spring, more than two dozen residents spent the better part of a day cleaning up the grounds.
Earlier this summer, the group Jens Jensen Gardens in Evanston hosted what was essentially a Jens Jensen day, beginning with the documentary “Jens Jensen: The Living Green.” The screening was followed by the commentary and remarks of Robert Grese, who wrote “Jens Jensen: Maker of National Parks and Gardens.” Mr. Grese teaches landscape architecture at the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability, Ann Arbor, and serves as Director of the Matthaei Botanic Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.
Descendants of Jens Jensen also attended the film screening and the afternoon tour of three local Jensen gardens: the Shakespeare Garden on the Northwestern University campus, the Clarke gardens and Mahoney Park. The Garden Club of Evanston has maintained the Shakespeare Garden since it was planted more than 100 years ago. Visitors to the Shakespeare Garden see and feel the meticulous care the club members have invested in this gem for more than a century.
At the Clarke gardens on a hot and sunny July day, Mr. Smith took his guests on a tour of the Jensen gardens at the Clarke mansion. Looking to the north of the parking lot, one sees the field for play, encircled by trees, that is a hallmark of a Jensen garden.
Traversing a barely walkable path, the trio noted the council ring and lake-facing benches for contemplation. A grotto with a small pond and artificial waterfall mark the southern and serene end of the garden. A short walk and a soft turn toward the front of the house brings visitors to the wildflower garden.
“Jensen would have planted heavily across the street for the people who lived in the house to look at and enjoy,” Mr. Smith said. “He wanted to mask/veil the front of the house, because he thought it was too ostentatious.”
Musing on the gardens designed by a man who was committed to bringing nature to everyone, regardless of race or income, living in urban areas, Mr. Smith said, “I think we have created something beautiful for the few at the expense of the many.” He said he believes those who are committed to the legacy of Jens Jensen will find a way to let Evanstonians understand that this a garden for the people, for all the residents of Evanston.
The volunteer work is but a scratch of the surface. Restoring the gardens could take years of work and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the friends would start small: $50,000 would go a long way, Mr. Smith said, and raising that money is their immediate goal.
Please visit the website jensjensengardensinevanston.org and learn how to support the restoration and maintinance of the Jens Jensen Garden in the lighthouse beach complex.