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’s school-in-the-woods taught landscape design, nature studies, and various arts, including weaving and painting.
The campus, encompassing 125 acres, was originally Jensen’s summer estate. Beginning in 1919, 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. In 1937, after a fire destroyed the school’s main building, Jensen rebuilt it with the help of architect Hugh Garden. Uncoursed rubble and pointed-arched windows reflect English cottage design more than the Prairie Style for which Garden is best known. The dormitories, by contrast, are rough-hewn log structures, dovetailed at the corners and chinked with mortar, recalling the building traditions of Wisconsin’s early European settlers. Jensen originally built these log buildings for his own retreat. When he set up his school in 1935, he moved them from other parts of the property to provide housing for his students. The Clearing Folk School carries on Jensen’s legacy, with adult education programs in the arts and nature studies.