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Chicago Landscape Design Styles

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

Recently I helped lead a bus trip to Chicago for Bradley's OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) program. On the way to Chicago I spoke on the bus about the history of landscaping in Chicago. Although we are far from Chicago, some of the design styles are seen here too.

My history lesson began about the time of the Chicago Fire of 1871. The Victorian Gardenesque Style was popular from about 1850 to the end of the 19th century. This style included cheerful patterns, color, and ornate cast iron features. Chicago's Lincoln Park was designed during that period by Swain Nelson and Olaf Benson. They created the very ornate Lincoln Park Conservatory in 1890 that we visited on the bus trip.

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century landscapes were created using the Beaux-Arts Style. This style emulated European Renaissance and Baroque landscapes. These grandiose landscapes included Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmstead is considered by many to be the father of American landscape architecture. He also designed Central Park in New York City.

Next came the Prairie Style in the late 19th and early 20th century. Similar to the architect style of Frank Lloyd Wright, this style celebrated the open character, horizontal expanse, and native vegetation of the Midwest. Jens Jensen was a key designer of the prairie style. He designed Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Springfield, Illinois in the 1930's in this style and was also instrumental in creating the Illinois state park system.

A few of us visited the Lily Pool while we were in Lincoln Park. It was created in 1936 by Alfred Caldwell. Caldwell designed a prairie river landscape in the center of a meandering lagoon that has limestone edges, walls, paths, steps, and a cascading waterfall. It also features a council ring and circular stone bench meant to provide a gathering place at a dramatic overlook.

The last three landscape design styles are still used today. The Modernist Style began in the 1920s and included irregular forms and asymmetry. The Art Institute of Chicago's South Gardens were created in this style in 1962.

The Postmodernist Style began about 1960. It integrates architecture, landscape, and public art. Chicago's Millennium Park with its many statues and "the Bean" is a great example. The 24-acre Millennium Park was built in 2004, followed by the 5-acre Lurie Garden in 2005 with its boardwalk, meadow perennials, and raised "marsh."

Today, landscapes are often designed to be sustainable and healthy. Chicago's Shedd Aquarium has new gardens they say are designed to be low-maintenance and mostly native. We visited the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and walked around its prairie restoration landscape and rooftop gardens.

Landscape design styles change to reflect how the purpose of gardens changes over time. The next time you visit a public garden, think about its purpose and design style.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.