Council ring comes full circle

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oct. 10, 2000, written by Jeff Iseminger

The curve seems to come from the heart of the hillside, a line in the landscape that is a both a balm to the eye and a grace note to the hill.

The line is a low limestone wall that appears on your right as you walk up from Lake Mendota and slip between Elizabeth Waters Residence Hall and Social Science Building. If you go atop the knoll, the wall blooms into a full circle, punctuated in the middle by a fire pit.

Even some longtime habitués of UW-Madison don’t know the circle exists, since it’s screened from Observatory Drive by a grove of trees. The seclusion of the grove and the beauty of the wall make it seem like a place fit for ancient, mossy rituals.

And it is. There’s a story behind this council ring, as it’s called, a story deeper and richer than you ever could imagine as you look at this concatenation of limestone slabs. This circle, you see, predates all the buildings around it. It was built in 1930, 10 years before Liz Waters first opened its doors.

How it came to be begins in Denmark, where a man named Jens Jensen – that name will ripple through our story – was born in 1860. Jensen emigrated to the United States as a young man and got a job as a street sweeper for the Chicago parks department in 1886. He then proceeded, through his expansive personality and the sheer power of genius, to propel himself to international fame as a landscape architect.

Jensen designed several parks in west Chicago, as well as gardens for Henry Ford and other famous clients like Armour and Florsheim. He also collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright on projects until a falling-out sparked by Wright’s I-know-best approach to life. Like Wright, Jensen was part of the Prairie School movement that championed ideas of indigenous Midwestern design.

“Jensen was one of the few immigrants working in landscape architecture, which was dominated at the time by the European-influenced Harvard Graduate School of Design,” says William Tishler, professor of landscape architecture. “Jensen called the Harvard people ‘white-collar priests’ and went his own way in developing a Midwestern style of landscape architecture.”

Over the years, Jensen’s style came to be marked by his use of native plants in naturalistic designs. That contrasted sharply with European-style formal gardens stocked with botanical imports.

One of Jensen’s design signatures – we’re beginning to loop back to that limestone curve by Liz Waters – was the council ring, which he knew was embedded in the heritage of both Vikings and Native Americans.

“Jensen thought the council ring was very American,” says Tishler. “Everyone could look everyone else in the eye – no head of the table.”

Tishler, you can tell, admires what Jensen did for American landscape architecture. In fact, he wrote the script for an award-winning video documentary, “Jens Jensen: A Natural History,” produced by Tishler’s son, Bill, in 1998. Their video was shown twice on Wisconsin Public Television last April.

Part of the documentary chronicles Jensen’s battle to preserve native plants in the wild, which even then were disappearing at an alarming rate. “A garden, to be a work of art, must have the soul of the native landscape in it,” said Jensen.

In 1913 Jensen founded an early conservation group called The Friends of Our Native Landscape (FONL), with chapters in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The longtime secretary of the Wisconsin chapter was Franz Aust, first professor of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin and a close friend of Jensen’s.

It’s hard to say who did what precisely, says Tishler, but the confluence of Jensen and Aust and FONL gave birth to the council ring by Liz Waters. The FONL newsletter notes that on Oct. 8, 1930, during the group’s annual meeting in Madison, “the council ring on Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin campus was formally dedicated to the youth of America,” with Jensen as a featured speaker.

Jensen left his mark on Madison in other ways. He designed the council ring and tree plantings in the Glenwood Children’s Park, located on Glenway Street near Monroe Street and dedicated in 1949.

He also designed a council ring that sits just inside the UW-Madison Arboretum off Monroe Street, a ring with a very sad reason for existing. Jensen chose the spot and built the ring in 1938 as a memorial for his grandson and heir apparent, Kenneth Jensen Wheeler. On the eve of his graduation from UW as a landscape architecture student, Wheeler died suddenly of an aneurysm.

But that rupture has been healed, in a way. A young man from the Chicago area has just enrolled as a freshman, with designs on becoming a landscape architect. He’s the great-great-grandson of Jens Jensen, and his name is – you guessed it – Jens Jensen.

“While I was growing up,” says the younger Jens, “people would tell me that I had the right name to become a landscape architect, but I really didn’t know what that profession meant.”

His impressions of his great-great-grandfather began to sharpen as he read his collected essays, “Siftings.” “I’ve always been a lover of nature,” says Jens, “and I felt like I had that connection through his writing, even beyond the family name.”

He also saw the beautiful effect the elder Jensen had in designing The Clearing, a home he built in Wisconsin’s Door County and later turned into a school for adults, which it still is.

That Jens enrolled at UW-Madison seems inspired by an alignment of planets – or naturalists, in his case. He says his heroes include his great-great-grandfather; John Muir, who attended UW before going on to found the Sierra Club; and Aldo Leopold, a faculty member who wrote “Sand County Almanac.”

In the end, like that limestone curve coming out of the hillside, the story of the council ring arcs gracefully through the past century, coming full circle today in the inspirations and aspirations of young Jens Jensen.