HUMBOLDT PARK — A years-long effort to restore the iconic yet deteriorating Jensen Formal Garden has stalled.
The neighbor-led group tasked with fundraising the restoration project has failed to raise the money needed to get the costly project off the ground.
And the park district group tasked with facilitating the fundraising said the project has gotten too expensive, which is hindering its ability to move the project forward.
The Jensen Formal Garden was created and designed in 1908 by Jens Jensen (1860-1951), who is regarded as one of the country’s most significant landscape designers.
Jensen, pioneer of prairie-stye landscape design, designed the Humboldt Park garden to have semi-circular beds of roses and other perennials, as well as an upper terrace with wooden and concrete pergolas.
“Let us call [them] ‘community gardens,’ for they are gardens for the entire community – for those who have no other gardens except their windowsills,” Jensen said of the garden at the time he created it.
But over the years the garden, which sits in the neighborhood’s sprawling namesake park, has deteriorated and now it’s in need of a major restoration. The concrete walls and pergolas are cracking and the wood is rotting. Some flower beds have been sodded over and very few flowers remain.
For several years, neighbors have been trying to get the restoration project off the ground with help from the Chicago Parks Foundation, the charitable arm of the park district, and The Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Garrison, NY.
The overhaul was originally expected to cost a total of $350,000. The Chicago Parks Foundation said it would help the neighbor-led group raise public and private donations to fund the project.
Plans appeared to be moving forward in 2017, when the park district announced that internationally known landscape designer Piet Oudolf, who designed the award-winning Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, would be restoring the garden back to its former glory.
But Oudolf never got to work because the project partners never reached their fundraising goal. The group had only raised $2,985 as of Monday evening.
Last week, Karl Kuhn, head of the neighbor-led group called the Jensen Formal Garden Working Group, announced he was stepping down from the group after five years due to the lack of progress.
“In the past five years we have managed to share the beauty and history of this garden through historical tours (thanks again Julia!), art installations and many public meetings and events,” Kuhn wrote in an email to members of the group.
“What we have not been able to do is raise the money required to revitalize the garden, which is very disappointing.”
Also in the email, Kuhn placed the blame on the Chicago Parks Foundation.
“It is my understanding that the financial partner for the project, the Chicago Parks Foundation, has no capital campaign plan or any other designs to seriously engage the project with the energy and commitment it requires,” Kuhn wrote.
Kuhn was reached, but declined to speak with Block Club for this story.
But Willa Iglitzen Lang, executive director for the Chicago Parks Foundation, denied the accusation.
“We were very committed and spent a lot of time on this,” Lang said. “We never said we were stopping.”
Lang commended Kuhn and the Jensen Formal Garden Working Group for its work over the last several years. She said the fundraising failure shouldn’t rest on the group’s shoulders, but that the support just wasn’t there.
“The support has to come from the community. They have to really want it. It can’t be one group in the community wanting it and not anyone else,” she said.
Over the years, the project has grown in scope and that increased price tag has also made it a harder sell, Lang said.
“Originally we started to talk about the garden itself, but then they wanted to look at the natural areas. … There’s also a beautiful prairie river that runs through it. They wanted that to be accessible, so it was really opening up the garden and the park in a new way,” she said.
The executive director couldn’t say how much more expensive the project has gotten, but added, “We tried to bring everyone together but it was a really expensive project.”
Lang said her organization isn’t giving up on the project, however.
“We’re here whenever people want to revive it,” she said. “It’s still on our radar because we think it would be a lovely project for the neighborhood.”
In his email to members of his group, Kuhn said he, too, wants to see the project move forward even if he’s not the one leading the charge.
“I still believe that this very special place deserves the attention and commitment to make it a four season garden that maintains and adds to Jensen’s original vision,” Kuhn wrote.
“It is my hope that another opportunity or group will take up the cause and be the stewards we tried to be.”
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