Mention the name "Frank Lloyd Wright" and most people will recognize it as belonging to the famous "prairie style" architect.

Mention the name "Jens Jensen" and most people will draw a blank.

That's unfortunate, because Jens Jensen was to landscape architecture — to gardens, yards and the outdoors — what Wright was to buildings.

A Danish-born American who lived from 1860 to 1951, Jensen was a master of American landscape architecture who was as important to the physical and cultural development of Chicago as Wright, according to biographers. Among Jensen's lasting legacies are the establishment of the Cook County Forest Preserve system and the Illinois state parks system.

A retrospective of Jensen's life and work opens March 9 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, but Quad-Citians can see an example of his work right here at home.

That's because among Jensen's private clients — alongside Henry and Edsel Ford and the Armour and Florsheim families — was Susanne Denkmann, a daughter of one of the founders of the Weyerhauser Lumber Co., who built her home in Rock Island.

In 1909, Denkmann hired a Chicago architect who was a close friend of Wright to design the home, but she hired Jensen himself to design the multi-acre landscape behind it.

Jensen's signed drawings still hang on the home's walls, and the backbone of his work is still visible amidst the overgrown woods behind the structure, now owned and operated by the city as the Hauberg Civic Center. (John Hauberg was Susanne's husband, whom she married shortly after her home was finished.)

Although the existence of this historic garden isn't widely known, Rock Island parks and recreation horticulturist Bob Towler can tell you a lot about it, and he can point out the "bones" still intact in the hillside estate that now covers about six acres.

"The skeleton that Jensen laid, the concept of the garden is still there," Towler says.

Towler's knowledge of the garden comes from nearly 20 years of helping to maintain the property, from drawings and photographs left in the house and from a research paper that Susan Anderson, now horticulturist at Davenport's Vander Veer Botanical Park, wrote in 1985 for a landscape architecture history class at Iowa State University, Ames.

While restoration of historic gardens is a growing trend nationwide — though lagging far behind that of architecture — such work takes a lot of money and chances are slim that will ever happen at Hauberg, at least in the foreseeable future, Towler says.

But that suits Towler fine.

He likes the property the way it is, a wild sort of open space where kids can come and tramp around in the ravine and swing from ropes and even build makeshift tree houses.

"What a wonderful asset for the city," Towler says.

The hillside also can be used as a laboratory of sorts by science teachers showing how a forest regenerates, he says.

The Jensen landsape

In approaching Jensen's landscape, it is important to understand that although Jensen was a prairie architect and a promoter of indigenous materials, he started his Rock Island work in 1910 by having the hillside cleared of native plants so he could install the plants, ponds, paths, terraces and concrete structures that would make up his landscape.

"They really went to a lot of work," Towler says, with understatement.

A walk through the property logically begins at the bottom of the bluff — now 22nd Street — because that is where visitors approached in the first part of the 1900s when the Haubergs lived here. Nowadays, one drives directly to the front door of the home off 24th Street, at the top of the bluff, but that's not how the estate was originally designed.

Back then, early motor vehicles or carriages passed between two brick pillars marked with the initial "H," then continued on a wide, brick drive, that at some point were covered with asphalt.

"That was the trend, to smooth it up," Towler says of the asphalt. "It was an instant fix."

The drive winds through the property, following a ravine. As your eye skips up the ravine, you can see areas where concrete pools, now largely filled in, created three ponds. At one time, these ponds supported water lilies and fishing.

You also can pick out a dam that created a waterfall and a bridge that you walk over on the way to the top.

The hillside is overgrown, but many of Jensen's original trees remain, including towering white birch, white pine and Canadian hemlock.

Towler knows these are Jensen's trees because they are not native to the Quad-Cities; they were planted by a man who loved the "north woods" look. Towler believes the birches are some of the oldest existing specimens in northern Illinois and possibly the entire state.

Other Jensen plant favorites are hawthorns, dogwood and native crabs. He also used oak, black and white walnut, yellow poplar, wild cherry and linden.

About half-way up the drive, Towler points out a rusty pole, an original light standard with a bumpy finish like the bark of a tree.

"He was way ahead of his time with this," Towler says, referring to the attempt to make man-made objects look natural. "The irony is that we're doing this kind of thing again."

Towler also can point out large rocks in the undergrowth, igneous specimens such as granite that Jensen had transported to the site.

Closer to the house, Towler points out areas that originally were orchard, lawn and rose garden. The fruit trees and roses have been "shaded out" through the years, but the expanse that was lawn is still visible.

"And in the spring in the woods, you can see peonies and day lilies coming up," Towler says, offering evidence of a long-ago flower garden. "But as the season progresses, they fade away under the shade of the trees."

Another flower that has survived is an original rhododendron that blooms with an unusual, greenish-white flower. Towler says he's seen similar rhododendrons at two other historic Rock Island properties, the former Huber mansion and the Villa.

Next to the house are several small rock-lined concrete ponds. Towler once toyed with the idea of trying to refurbish these ponds, but they are no longer water-tight and the maintenance would have been prohibitive.

"It also would have been a bit of a hazard because there'd be people in it," Towler says. "Where there's water, there's people."

Meantime, the grounds are, as Towler says, a great asset, available for exploration by anyone, any time. That's not what Jensen envisioned, but he likely would have been pleased with the contact between people and "living green."

Alma Gaul can be contacted at (563) 383-2324 or agaul@qctimes.com

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