In 1935, Jens Jensen founded The Clearing as a school-in-the-woods offering courses in landscape design, nature studies, and various arts, including weaving and painting. The campus, encompassing 125 acres, was originally Jensen’s summer estate.
Jensen was a leading practitioner of Prairie Style landscape design. Born in Denmark, he opened his practice in Chicago in 1884 and found inspiration in the Midwest’s natural terrain and its native flora. His work emphasized gentle contours, open spaces, stratified rockwork, rushing waterfalls, and the interplay of shadows and light. His favorite plant was the hawthorn, whose spreading branches, he thought, symbolized the Midwestern horizon and provided a visual transition between the short vegetation of the prairies and the taller trees of the woodlands. Among Jensen’s more famous works are Fairlane in Dearborn and the Edsel Ford Estate in Grosse Pointe Shores, both in Michigan. In 1935, Jensen left Chicago to found a school on this spectacular bluff overlooking Green Bay. Jensen, like many early-twentieth-century conservationists, believed that contact with nature could restore the human spirit. In his essay “The Voice of the Clearing,” Jensen wrote that the name referred to “both a clearing in the woods and a clearing for the mind.” Clearings created contrasts between shaded woods and sunlit meadows, openings for observing the drama of the sky, and habitat for the plants of woodland borders. In clearings, one could contemplate the wonders of nature.
Jensen and his wife, Anne Marie, bought the property that would become the school as a summer retreat in 1919 and began developing it thereafter. Jensen sought to preserve and enhance many of the natural features of the property—several open meadows, wooded bluffs, and dramatic views across Ellison Bay—while creating settings initially intended for family gatherings. He planted indigenous trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers. He created paths through the dark woods that emerged into sunny openings, where he thinned and trimmed the existing white pines to frame picturesque views. At one point on the western bluffs of Ellison Bay, the woods open onto a large meadow that offers a spectacular scene of the water at sunset. After his wife’s death in 1934, Jensen moved to The Clearing full time and sought to develop the folk school that had long been his dream, loosely modeling its program after those he had experienced as a youth in Denmark.
When the Jensens purchased the property, the site consisted of remnant natural woodland and cleared fields. Door County’s steep bluffs and outcrops of Niagara limestone with views out to Lake Michigan reminded Jensen of his native Denmark. Unlike in many of his other designs, where most of the landscape features were created, at The Clearing Jensen focused more on minimal interventions and “repairing” the cutover forests. As he wrote to the German writer Michael Mappes in 1937, “You know that I live in the forest, only such trees were cut down that were essential for light and for some views of the water beyond.” He was delighted with the plants that colonized the old fields. Although his emphasis was on the native flora, he was not a purist and at The Clearing he introduced some of the plants he appreciated from his youth in Denmark, including lilacs, briar rose, and hollyhocks. Jensen was also interested in preserving the natural and social histories of The Clearing in his scheme for the property.
He designed the large homestead meadows as an homage to the property’s pioneer settlers; the meadows also provided a contrast to the surrounding forest areas. He transformed the small quarry on the property (which provided stone for the School House and other campus structures) into a wildflower garden, including a small waterfall and featuring many of the unique ferns and wildflowers found in Door County. In other areas of the campus, he highlighted the dynamic character of nature. To engage visitors, Jensen designed the curving entrance drive that winds through the woodlands and clearings, providing dramatic patterns of sunlight and shadow. From the Main Lodge the meadow views to the east (sunrise) and to the west (sunset) overlooking Ellison Bay are reminders of the landscape’s daily and seasonal changes. Finally, Jensen was interested in bringing the arts and culture into the landscape: the council ring on the bluffs allows for informal gatherings around a bonfire and serves as a prime location from which to watch sunsets over Ellison Bay; a dance ring serves as performance space; and the Player’s Green, a small woodland amphitheater, hosts informal dramatic or musical performances.
The rustic and Arts and Crafts campus buildings set an appropriate tone for a school focused on nature and the arts. Several of the original cabin structures at The Clearing predate the Jensens and were purchased from local farmers and moved to the site. Others Jensen built for his own retreat: rough-hewn log structures, dovetailed at the corners and chinked with mortar, recall the building traditions of Wisconsin’s early European settlers. When Jensen set up his school in 1935, he moved these cabins from other parts of the property, transforming them into dormitories for his students.
In 1937, after a fire destroyed the school’s main building, Jensen rebuilt it with the help of his friend, architect Hugh Garden. The uncoursed rubble and pointed-arched windows of the Main Lodge reflect English cottage design more than the Prairie Style for which Garden is best known. The Lodge serves as the campus’s main indoor gathering space and the location of dining facilities and professors’ quarters, where Jensen lived during the later years of his life. It was carefully sited with tall vertical windows that offered sunrise and sunset views. Jensen preferred tall windows to skylights, since they allowed him to behold more of the outdoors.
The School House, which Jensen co-designed with another architect friend, John S. Van Bergen, is The Clearing’s main teaching space, used for studios, lectures, and smaller discussions, along with community gatherings. Other Jensen-era buildings include the Cliff House, the Root Cellar (now houses restrooms and refrigeration), and cabins.
During Jensen’s lifetime, his school struggled to attract students but after his death in 1951, his assistant Mertha Fulkerson worked with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau to run nature-based classes much in keeping with the school’s original vision. In 1961, the Friends of The Clearing was established to support the school and the landscape design that Jensen had developed during his lifetime.
In the 1970s, the group engaged landscape architect Stephen Christy to make recommendations for the restoration and maintenance of the landscape; a guide for the stewardship of the property was completed in 1983. The Clearing became a non-profit organization in 1988 and began operating the school independent of the Farm Bureau. Since then, The Clearing has established itself as a financially stable adult residential school offering diverse classes and experiential educational programs in the folk school tradition. It continues much as Jensen had intended—as a place for “the clearing of the mind” and for quiet reflection and connection with nature.
As the school’s programs expanded, so did the campus, but as buildings were added care was taken to maintain the scale and rustic character of the original campus. In 1997, architect Pat Mangan built the Jensen Center, which offers a welcome center and gift shop for visitors, administrative offices, additional meeting spaces, and an apartment for staff members. Other recent buildings include the student workshop built in 2007 (also by Pat Mangan) and a planned forge to accommodate growing interest in classes in traditional arts and crafts. Today, key landscape features created or shaped by Jensen remain the foundation of the campus landscape, and now display a mature expression of the “prairie landscape style” Jensen developed throughout his career.
Christy, Stephen F., Alan Pape, and William H. Tishler. Advisory Report on the Management of the Landscape and Buildings. Ellison Bay, WI: The Clearing, 1983.
Doty, Carol, and Luciana Peters. Exploring The Clearing Folk School: A Map for Walking. Ellison Bay, WI: The Clearing, 2008.
Doty, Carol. “A Brief History of The Clearing,” 1989 Jensen Collection, Morton Arboretum Archives, Lisle, IL.
Eaton, Leonard K. Landscape Artist in America: The Life and Work of Jens Jensen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.
Engel, Charlene Stant, “The Clearing,” Door County, Wisconsin. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1974. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D. C.
Fulkerson, Mertha, and Ada Corson. The Story of the Clearing: A Door County Legend.Chicago: The Coach House Press, 1972.
Grese, Robert E. Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens.Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Jensen, Jens. Letter to Michael Mappes, March 11, 1937. Jensen Collection, Morton Arboretum Archives, Lisle, IL.