Date: May 5, 2015
To: City of Evanston
From: Scott Mehaffey, PLA, FASLA
Re: Evanston Art Center
It is been brought to my attention that the future of the Evanston Art Center site is uncertain, and that the historically significant landscape which surrounds the building, may be demolished. As a practicing landscape architect and preservationist, and former Evanston resident, I am alarmed that this cultural treasure may be lost. This landscape has been well-documented by architectural and landscape photographers, historians, authors, students and visitors throughout its nearly 90-year history.
Recent publications and a widely-released documentary film have showcased the work of landscape architect Jens Jensen, who designed the landscape and site features surrounding the Harley Lyman Clarke House, later known as the Evanston Art Center. This project was featured in the seminal biography, “Landscape Artist in America: The life and Work of Jense Jensen” (Eaton, 1965). It was also included among Jensen’s residential commissions in “Jens Jensen, Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens” (Grese, 1992) and is further described in “Alfred Caldwell: The Life and Work of a Prairie School Landscape Architect (Domer, 1997). This last reference contains a quote (page 8) from Caldwell stating, “I did one job for him (Jensen) that he considered a great masterpiece. The Clarke house in Evanston. I was one year working there, and that was the best thing I did in my lifetime.” Alfred Caldwell is well-known for the design of the Lincoln Park Lily Pool (now renamed in his honor) and as a longtime professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
More recently, this landscape has been documented and described in “North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs, 1890-1940” (Cohen and Benjamin, 2004) as follows: “Jens Jensen designed the landscaping, grounds, and bluff going down to a private sand beach, in an informal manner, as wooded areas with grassy clearings. The woods feature one of Jensen’s signature Indian Council Rings. As with Olmsted, Jensen was famous for his naturalistic landscapes, which in Jensen’s case were re-creations of the Midwestern prairie.”
In 2000, I was asked to collaborate with historian Julia Bachrach on a cultural landscape assessment of this property, to ascertain how much of the Jensen design remains and whether the landscape could be rehabilitated to be more characteristic of Jensen’s work. Our recommendation was that the remaining stone features and large specimen trees remain and be maintained as character-defining features, and that the shrub and ground cover layers should be restored to enframe the lawn areas and to evoke Jensen’s intended design character. Much of this work has since been accomplished, with successive removal of invasive understory species and replanting of native herbaceous borders. Although the property has been modified over the years, these recent rehabilitations help contemporary visitors “read” and interpret the designed landscape as a work of art which is integral to the design of the building and the site’s overall history.
Unfortunately, most of Jens Jensen’s work on the North Shore is found on private estates and is therefore inaccessible to the general public. The Evanston Art Center provides a valuable case study and immersion experience for students of landscape design and history, and is more characteristic of his naturalistic style than the nearby Shakespeare Garden, located on the campus of Northwestern University. The weathered stone walls and steps, the majestic trees, and open vistas of this historic Midwestern landscape remain – to invite successive generations of artists to interact via sculpture, painting, photography and the written word. It should continue be preserved and rehabilitated as an important work of 20th century design, and valued and promoted among Evanton’s many notable cultural treasures.
(Note: Scott Mehaffey is a licensed and practicing landscape architect, former Landscape Coordinator for the City of Chicago and former Landscape Architect at The Morton Arboretum. Scott has worked on numerous historic landscapes designed by Jens Jensen and others, while working at Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, Scott Byron & Co, and Jacobs/Ryan Associates. Scott has completed cultural landscape reports for the Village of Riverside, Robert Allerton Park & Conference Center, Thornhill Manor at The Morton Arboretum, and has contributed to the “Pioneers of American Landscape Design” series published by The Library of American Landscape History in conjunction with The Cultural Landscape Foundation.)