Campus Landscape Design
Imagine the native landscape of Mid-America, here in the Upper Midwest, with its woodlands, natural meadows, flowing water, rock cliffs, sunshine and dappled shade, ever-changing as seasons pass, as clouds part, as the sun sets and the moon rises.
Architect Jens Jensen imagined this landscape. He lived in it, studied it, and worked out a plan to reshape the Luther College campus into an icon of this woodland and meadow region. He wanted to “awaken people to the beauties around them, and to reconnect them to the biological heritage” at their doorstep.
His vision for the Luther campus was realized nearly a century ago.
Who was Jens Jensen?
Jens Jensen (1860–1951) was one of America’s great landscape artists. He crafted natural landscapes for famous houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and other Chicago architects of the Prairie School of design. His public works included Chicago parks, parkways, green belts, and natural preserves designed to “bring the prairies and woodlands” into the great Midwestern metropolis. In 1909, he visited Luther College. The campus was in dire need of a landscape plan.
Before it became a college campus, it was a grassy savanna scattered with Bur oaks. A young woman named Karine hiked here in the fall of 1862. From the limestone bluffs, she saw the glistening curve of the river between wooded hills in autumn colors. “I think it is the most beautiful place I have seen here in the West, ” she wrote to her sister. “I have wandered around the area quite a bit and have found lots of good places for taking walks.” Karine Neuberg was staying with a relative, Laur. Larsen, who at 29 years of age was the first president of Luther College. The college was in downtown Decorah in 1862.
Down in the valley, Karine may have seen remains of wigwams and corn patches abandoned by the Ho-Chunk people, then called the Winnebago, when they had departed the area only a dozen years earlier. Burial mounds, centuries old, stood nearby. These bluffs and rolling hills were even older, having escaped the flattening effect of continental glaciers for 500, 000 years. Karine explored the woodlands, savannas, and hardwood glades mixed with white pines and underlain with wildflowers. At the woodland margins were plum, sumac, elder, and hazel. Reeds and marsh vegetation filled the flood plain of the Oneota valley. Occasional wildfires and grazing deer kept the savanna free of underbrush but did not harm the oaks. Karine drank the beauty of nature on what would soon become a college campus.
You can follow Karine’s footsteps and wander in the paths of the Ho-Chunk people as you walk under the same spreading trees. Many oaks of that old savanna still survive on campus. Much has changed, but they remain. In this ancient landscape, spreading Bur oaks have always given the Luther College campus its particular character.
The Designed Landscape
When large numbers of people gather in one place, the landscape is always changed. Buildings and paths appear. Resources are extracted from the land. Areas of recreation become trampled and hard. Eventually, somebody starts to plan how the landscape should look because the local ecology has been disturbed and can no longer evolve gradually in its natural state.
At Luther College, an immense Main building was erected during the Civil War years of 1862-65, expanded in 1878, destroyed by fire in 1889, and re-erected in 1890. When it was built, trees fell to the axe, limestone was quarried and made into lime, and clay for more than two million bricks was dug from the campus. Main building grew out of the campus itself, but the price was damage to the oak savanna and its surroundings. A gaping clay pit remained in front of Main, just beyond where a large cottonwood tree later grew.
To repair the damage, long avenues of spruce and elm were planted in straight lines, creating an enclosed geometrical space east of the new college building. This defined a patch of European order, superimposed upon the American wilderness and running from Lief Erikson Drive to Campus House and up to Main. North of this triangular patch of meadow, many Bur oaks survived. Students explored the river valley, swept down the hills on skis, played baseball and football in the glades, walked, and studied under the old oaks.
In 1909, nearly half a century after Karine had explored the oak savanna and its surroundings, the Luther College Club in Chicago hired landscape artist Jens Jensen to redesign the campus landscape—in time for the college’s Semicentennial in 1911.
Jens Jensen’s Campus
The plan was breathtaking: Jensen knew that the original landscape could never be restored, but he proposed reshaping the Luther College campus into a symbolic representation of what he called Mid-America, the heartland of a new world civilization.
Horses and wagons appeared. Students were given “free days” to work with shovels and wheelbarrows. A natural knoll or berm west of Campus House (then called “Prestegaarden”) was gradually removed, and the earth was used to fill the clay pit in front of Main. In this way, a gentle slope was created, running all the way from Main to where Preus Library and the Franklin W. Olin Building stand today.
When Jensen arrived, an allé of elms marched in a double line from High Street to Main. This regulated planting reminded Jensen of Prussian militarism from his soldier days in Berlin. They were inappropriate, he said, because this was a campus where young people were being trained for life in a free, democratic society. He ordered them removed. Some of the elms were moved to the edge of the campus near Larsen. A few remained as specimens in what became an open meadow. All of them succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
Jensen did away with straight lines and replaced them with curves that flowed naturally. He reshaped the campus around three sunlit clearings—a large one in front of Main, another in front of Preus Library, and a third where the Center for Faith and Life now stands. Groves of oaks separated these clearings; Jensen scattered hard maples, white pines, and a few birches among them, with flowering crab and hawthorn at the margins by Campus House and Main.
In the large campus clearing in front of Main, he planted a lone cottonwood tree as a symbol of the American plains. Earlier planners had wanted to put the statue of Martin Luther in front of Main, but Jensen chose its present location, where it would be seen against a background of living greenery. One of his famous architect colleagues in Chicago’s Steinway Hall designed the pedestal.
In Jensen’s day, the lower campus was an open floodplain with the river moving through it in a sweeping curve. Along the bluff from Main to the outcropping of limestone above the Regents Center, Jensen laid out a scenic trail that led to a council ring. Sumac and maples caught the rays of the setting sun. A variety of low native shrubs covered the steep bank to attract birds and small wildlife and provide seasonal color.