The Armour, Florsheim and Ford families hired him to create landscapes on their private estates back east.
So did Sears & Roebuck founder Julius Rosenwald and Morton Salt magnate Joy Morton.
His circle of Chicago friends included reformer Jane Addams, poet Carl Sandburg and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
He created landmark Columbus Park on the western edge of Chicago and designed numerous others in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Add Joslyn Castle in Omaha to the homes of the rich and famous touched by the pioneering work of famed landscape architect Jens Jensen.
Joslyn Castle's friends and caretakers have known for about two decades that Jensen designed the conservatory at the home of George and Sarah Joslyn in Omaha's affluent Gold Coast neighborhood during the early 1900s. There also is evidence that Jensen designed at least a portion of the castle's landscaping.
His work for the Joslyns a century ago puts Omaha on the map as a place where Jensen's legacy of Prairie School landscape design lives on. The Joslyn Castle Trust plans to re-root it in Omaha.
“I'm just thrilled that his work is part of Joslyn Castle and that work of this caliber is in Omaha,” said Julie Reilly, executive director of the Joslyn Castle Trust.
Jensen was a Danish immigrant who came to the United States as a 24-year-old in 1884. After brief stops in Florida and Decorah, Iowa, he settled in Chicago and eventually became a park designer.
He developed a landscape theme — the Prairie School — that used native prairie plants, wetlands, ponds and waterfalls in estates and urban parks. He was an influential designer of native gardens. He mimicked natural Midwestern rivers and streams with waterways rimmed with limestone rocks. He inspired and organized the early movements to conserve threatened scenic natural areas.
Jensen was an unforgettable figure, according to historical accounts. He stood 6 feet tall, but his stick-straight posture and shock of white hair — originally red — made him seem taller. His blue eyes were set in a ruddy face. A silk scarf around his neck set off his rough tweeds. By all accounts, he was a man of strong opinions and temper.
“I always agreed with everything he did,” recalled one client. “I'm sure that it would have been most unpleasant if I hadn't.”
Reilly recently discovered Jensen's original architectural drawings for the Joslyn Castle plant conservatory. The find came in time to show them to a pair of visitors from Jensen's hometown in Denmark who were on a tour of Jensen sites in the United States. Reilly acquired copies of the drawings from the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.
The visiting Danes were Brita Bastogi, a great-grandniece of Jensen, and Lilly Laursen, a librarian who is an authority on Jensen who helped organize an international conference in Denmark around his life and work two years ago. They also visited the Danish Immigrant Museum in Elk Horn, Iowa, where a 30-acre Jens Jensen Prairie Landscape Park is under development.
“Jens Jensen took inspiration from the Midwest's rivers, plains and trees,” Bastogi said.
Jensen's drawing of the castle conservatory shows his plans for rock walls, a small pool and fountain in the room. The conservatory was part of the original castle — nestled into a corner with windows in simplified Gothic arches — and featured curved glass panels set into metal ribs.
“It was a traditional Victorian conservatory,” Reilly said.
The Easter tornado that wreaked widespread destruction and killed about 100 people across Omaha in April 1913 caused extensive damage to the castle grounds. It destroyed the greenhouse — which held one of the nation's best orchid collections — and damaged trees and other landscaping.
George Joslyn reportedly was ready to walk away from the mess but changed plans when daughter Violet announced her engagement. The Joslyns hired Jensen to help get the property back in shape and to spruce up the conservatory for Violet's wedding at the castle.
“I'm sure it (the conservatory) was spectacular, sparkling like a gem behind glass windows at night,” Reilly said.
Restoring Jensen's work at the castle is in the top tier of a long list of projects facing the trust as it works to restore the property to its former magnificence, Reilly said.
For starters, the organization plans to remove the conservatory's aluminum duct work added in later years for heating and cooling. It also plans to reconnect radiators hidden behind Jensen's rock walls, repair the fountain and pool and restore glass and screens to the windows.
No records are known to exist listing the plants Jensen and the Joslyns placed in the conservatory. Reilly said she will study old photographs for clues. Reilly also hopes to find records, such as purchase orders for materials, and other documents that link Jensen to the castle and reveal more about his work there.
Jensen is believed to have at least been involved in the conceptual planning of a grotto and a pond-like pool that stretched across the castle's west lawn.
The Joslyns and visitors changed into bathing suits in the grotto and then stepped into the pool. It had the irregular shape of a wilderness pond. Rocks along the walls gave the concrete pool a natural appearance.
Water from the west end of the pool spilled under a stone bridge and flowed into a wetland lily pond with cattails, reeds and other water plants.
The pools were buried with dirt and covered with grass when Omaha Public Schools owned the site and used it for offices for more than four decades after World War II. Two parallel 15-foot-long rows of stone jutting from the lawn are all that visibly remain of the bridge.
Archaeology students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln determined in 1994 that the concrete pool and pond remain hidden under the lawn.
Old photographs show people sitting on the bridge and children standing by the pools.
“It was just gorgeous — almost like Shangri-la on the grounds — when the pools were there,'' Reilly said.
Bastogi said her ancestor's Joslyn Castle work shows that he was widely known and that his designs were in demand.
“So well known that one of the rich guys out here wanted something done by him,'' she said.
Laursen said the conservatory and castle grounds reflect Jensen's vision of the prairie landscape.
“Always water and rocks.''
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