One cannot live in Chicago for all of one’s life, other than schooling and military service, without becoming aware that some really good designers of landscapes had a hand in the creation of its big parks and its North Shore estates. I practiced law in Chicago, for upwards of 36 years, and was most fortunate to have represented several architectural and planning firms, some of which held themselves out as having landscape design expertise.
But, the fact is: I “backed into” looking hard at landscape designers in Chicago and the surrounding area. I was on the verge of retirement, when my mother died, leaving several written memoirs, including one recounting summertime visits to her great grandfather’s estate on the West End of Geneva Lake, WI.
He was Edward Uihlein – the Chicago brother of the six brothers once involved in the control and management of the Schlitz Company. In time, I learned that Mr. Uihlein had owned Chicago’s largest private conservatory located on the lot adjacent to his primary home in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago; that he had supplied live contents for the Horticultural Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition; and that he had progressed up through the officer ranks of The Horticultural Society of Chicago, to become Chairman, on the eve of World War I. It was sheer coincidence that— later in my professional life— I dealt with the Illinois Secretary of State to resurrect The Horticultural Society, an old Illinois charitable corporation, as The Chicago Botanic Garden.
It was not until 1976 that I learned where his estate had been located. He had died in 1921, when my mother was but 14 years old, and she could not recall its location since, in 1925, the estate had been sold and subdivided into landscape design oblivion. In 1976, a locally popular book about most of the lake shore estates of Geneva Lake was published by the now dormant Lake Geneva Historical Society. It provided some of the pre-subdivision history of the Uihlein Estate and mentioned that Mr. Uihlein had used the landscape design services of Jens Jensen. Mr. Uihlein could have met John Charles Olmsted during the course of the World’s Columbian Exposition, but he and Jensen had come to know each other well during Uihlein’s years as a member of Chicago’s West Parks Commission.
When it came to Geneva Lake, it was “Olmsted” who was known for designing four large estates on the North Shore, at the request of Charles Hutchinson, then Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of The University of Chicago. Walking the Shore Path, from East to West, these estates were:
Hutchinson’s own Wychwood of 1902;
Edward Swift’s Villa Hortensia of 1907;
Norman Harris’ Wadsworth Hall of 1906;
A.C. Bartlett’s House in the Woods of 1906;
And Yerkes Observatory, a few miles, to the West, on Williams Bay (1906).
As my retirement approached, I set about learning all that I could about Edward Uihlein and Jens Jensen. My first breakthrough was my wife’s gift to me of Leonard Eaton’s biography of Jensen, with its original paper cover, noting that Professor Eaton had attended Williams College, graduating exactly 10 years, before me. I called Professor Eaton, then in retirement in Oregon. He said, “I am going to the Annual SAH Meeting in St. Louis and will be going, from there, to Milwaukee, to see an Exhibition on the Prairie School of Architecture …at the Milwaukee Art Museum; can you meet me there?” I said, “Fine; what is SAH?”
We met, and, I soon learned the answer. Thereafter, I essentially became Leonard’s last dissertation student. Based on my writing about Jensen and of some of the Prairie School architects with whom Jensen was successfully associated, I jumped a few academic steps, and was elected Treasurer of the SAH, the Society of Architectural Historians.
My big research break came with the publication of Bob Grese’s 1992 biography of Jensen, with its page after page, long list of Jensen’s projects. In it, I recognized most of the German-American names, including that of Uihlein. Adopting a technique that Professor Eaton had used in another of his books, I employed Chicago’s then Who’s Who, Marquis’ The Book of Chicagoans, to list the organizations to which each of the German-Americans belonged, and looked to see if Uihlein had been a member, as well. The match was eerily complete, and I had my theory: Uihlein had recommended that his friends use Jensen, and many had.
The same search led me to realize that Jensen had had many clients who had estates on Geneva Lake – even before the booming 1920s. That led me to ask myself, as, by then, I knew the timing of Olmsted’s design work in Lake Geneva, “How did the Olmsted-designed estates, of that era, compare to the Jensen-designed estates, of that era?”
I concluded that:
The Olmsted estates had been larger and more elaborate, in their plantings, but not to the extent of becoming “formal”;
The Olmsted-designed estates were recognized as the work of a widely-acknowledged professional; and
The Jensen-designed estates were believed, by almost all successor owners, not to be worth conserving or to justify special attention.
In short, while far more Jensen designs were created for Geneva Lake estates, today, more recognizably Olmsted designs remain.
Editor’s Note: In 2021, Mr. Notz received the annual Olmsted Landscape Conservation Award from the Geneva Lake Conservancy. In 2018, he was named a Preservation Hero by the Library of American Landscape History (LALH). LALH is an Olmsted 200 Celebration Partner and you can learn more about their work here.
Yerkes Observatory, member of the Olmsted Network, and Olmsted landscape projects at Lake Geneva will be the focus of numerous educational programs in the summer of 2022. Stay tuned to the Olmsted 200 calendar for further information.