Indian Hill Manor and The Prairie Gardens of O. C. Simonds
Bob Grese, Director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, and an Honorary Director of the Wild Ones National Board, has documented the work of early 1900s landscape designers such as Jens Jensen and O.C. Simonds who advocated for use of native Midwestern prairie vegetation in their work. He is the author of Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens (1992), and a chapter in the book, Regional Garden Design in the United States (1995), entitled “The Prairie Gardens of O.C. Simonds and Jens Jensen.” Simonds designed Nichols Arboretum which is located on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Ossian Cole Simonds (1855-1931) and Jens Jensen (1860-1951) were both landscape gardeners from the Chicago area who experimented with the use of native flora of the region and developed an approach to naturalistic garden design that was described by Wilhelm Miller as the “Prairie Style,” a regional approach to landscape design “characterized by preservation of typical Western scenery, by restoration of local color, and by repetition of the horizontal line of land or sky, which is the strongest feature of prairie scenery.” (Miller, 1915)
Grese says that examination of Simonds’ and Jensen’s work shows “a reliance on compositional principles of naturalistic design that had been promoted by other landscape designers such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted. However, in their reliance on the native flora, spatial patterns, and dominant forms of the landscape of the Midwest, Simonds and Jensen effectively developed what can be understood as a regional style of garden design.” (Grese, 1995)
O.C. Simonds was the designer of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Sinnissippi Farm, Frank Lowden’s country estate in Oregon, Lowell Park in Dixon, and is the designer of the grounds of Indian Hill Manor. No records, plans or correspondence have been found to document that Simonds in fact designed the Manor grounds, but a plat drawn in 1923, and early photos of the property show many of his design principles, and the use of masses of native trees and shrubs indicates that he, or someone working under his direction, did the landscape design. A newspaper clipping from 1918 mentions, “a Mr. Simonds from Chicago” as the designer of the grounds.
Simonds and Jensen had close ties to Chicago’s Prairie School architects, with Frank Lloyd Wright its leading advocate, and worked on many private estates designed by prairie school architects in the region. Simonds began experimenting with the prairie style at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. He was trained as a civil engineer and took classes in architecture, later joining one of the leading architectural firms in Chicago before becoming superintendent of Graceland Cemetery. At Graceland, Simonds laid the groundwork for the new “middle-western movement” in landscape gardening, a term he preferred to use rather than “landscape architecture”.
The Midwest possessed several qualities that gave rise to the design approach promoted by Jensen and Simonds: the flat or rolling landscape and the mosaic of prairies and woodlands that emphasized broad horizontal lines. Also, the harsh climate limited the use of evergreens and tender plants common in the East, spurring interest in the native flora that was adapted to local conditions. Use of the native plants of the region was a major tenet of the Prairie Style, as practiced by Simonds and Jensen. Both men studied the native flora found on farms, wetlands, sand dunes, prairies, and the bluffs and river valleys of the Chicago region. This was a radical approach for the time as these species of plants were considered weeds.
Simonds accentuated the beauty of the garden in all seasons. He emphasized the use of deciduous plants that would change with each season, and during different types of weather. He understood and worked with natural plant succession, knowing that the landscape would develop and change over time. The flat or gently rolling character of the landscape was a central asset of his designs.
Although he did not limit his choice of plants to native species, he liked to use trees, shrubs and wildflowers commonly found growing along roadsides or in the woods and wetlands of the area. These included sumac, elderberry, hazelnut, gray dogwood, nannyberry, viburnum, goldenrod, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, phlox and aster. Shrubs were planted in large masses to suggest the clusters found in nature. The prairie rose (Rosa setigera) was one of his favorite plants, along with the native oaks, maples, basswood and white ash.
The landscape designs of Simonds and Jensen were not restorations of the natural landscape. They argued that their gardens were artistic, idealized images of the prairie. They did this by capturing the openness and feeling of limitlessness that marked the original prairie landscape in broad open spaces, and narrowed down the view to a more human scale ending at a “hazy ridge or misty piece of woods.” (Grese, 1995)
They used irregular masses of trees and shrubs to create an indefinite border that made the open space seem to extend beyond its actual boundaries. Simonds liked to use masses of shrubs and small trees to create a series of small spaces with borrowed views. He preserved views of the sky, clouds and sunsets, and studied the borders of woods for inspiration in creating an attractive skyline.
Grese pointed out that the beauty of the Midwestern landscape lay not in dramatic topography or showy plants, but in the repetition of quiet forms and lines. The prairie’s unique character also derived from repetition of certain dominant plants with horizontal branching patterns – bur oak, hawthorns, crabapples.
Most of Simonds’ and Jensen’s landscape designs have disappeared due to neglect or changes in style or taste. The original concepts and principles of Simonds design for Indian Hill Manor have been summarized by Dean Sheaffer, principal of Sheaffer Landscape Architects in Dixon, Illinois. He is an authority on the landscape designs of O.C. Simonds, and specializes in natural area and historic landscape preservation and restoration. He has developed a plan to rehabilitate the grounds and gardens of Indian Hill Manor following the principles and techniques of the “Prairie Spirit” landscape of O.C. Simonds (Sheaffer, 2013):
The Prairie Spirit Landscape
- Conservation, restoration and repetition of aspects of Midwestern scenery;
- Conservation of native plants;
- Restoration of “local color” or characteristic vegetation based on ecology;
- Repetition of the dominant line of land/sky in the horizontal branching and flowering of many native species.
The Prairie Spirit can be:
- Idealized, as by framing the house and views from the house with “stratified” trees (hawthorns, crabapples, dogwood, locust, oak)
- Conventionalized, as in a garden designed in the formal manner, by use of some flat-topped flowers
- Symbolized, by planting characteristic native plants (i.e. the Prairie Rose) near the gate or doorway
- A spiritual connection with our unique and diverse prairie/woodland/wetland landscape
- A cultured appreciation and respect for the quieter beauties of native plants (vs. the showy, exotic, Victorian plantings)
- Harmony between the garden and our Midwestern ecosystems
- A hardy, self-maintaining landscape
Grese, Robert E. 1995. “The Prairie Gardens of O.C. Simonds and Jens Jensen.” In Regional Garden Design in the United States. Edited by Therese O’Malley and Marc Treib. Washington, D.C. pp 99-123.
Miller, Wilhelm. 1915. The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening. University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station, Circular 184, Urbana, Illinois.
Sheaffer, Dean. 2013. Cultural Landscape Report and Recommendations for Rehabilitation of Indian Hill Manor Landscape. Sheaffer Landscape Architects, Dixon, Illinois.