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His Imagination Ran Wild

Promontory Point, the IIT campus, and the Lily Pool in Lincoln Park are just a few places landscape architect Alfred Caldwell brought the prarie into the city.

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By Andrew Santella

In 1936 a Chicago Park District landscape architect named Alfred Caldwell began redesigning a dilapidated Victorian lily pool at Cannon Drive and Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park. Caldwell introduced to the site elements associated with the Prairie style of architecture--native plants and trees, stratified stonework, a storyteller's arena called a council ring.

When he grew frustrated with the newly formed Park District's lack of support, he cashed in his life insurance policy and spent $300 on wildflowers to create the natural carpet that his superiors had rejected. He drove to Wisconsin with a work crew, hauled the plants back, and helped set them himself, in the niches between stones.

His drawings for the Lily Pool, like those for his other Chicago park designs--at Montrose Point, Promontory Point in Burnham Park, Jackson Park, and Riis Park--awed his colleagues. His sketches of the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired pavilions at the Lily Pool resembled Japanese landscapes. Even the most workaday planting plans were meticulous, with plant lists written in Latin in his tiny, precise architect's hand. Caldwell sometimes produced plans at the rate of one a week. His bosses, recognizing the rare quality of his work, lined up to sign them. Some bore as many as six approving signatures.

But his talent for draftsmanship and design were matched by his contempt for his superiors. "Why should a man have to stand such bastards just for the sake of doing a little work?" he asked his mentor, the pioneering landscape architect Jens Jensen, in a 1938 letter. Caldwell never could stand them for long. He was fired from the Park District in 1939 and again in 1940, after a brief return.

His work at the Lily Pool, which some consider his crowning achievement in the Chicago parks, survived his departure. It was a refuge brimming with color and complex textures that framed a pond fed by falling water. The native trees and flat midwestern stone evoked a landscape that was already alien to many Chicagoans. "Sumach, aspen and crabapple cling to the ledges, anchor in the crevices," Caldwell wrote of his garden in 1942. "The white blossoms of hawthorn and plum overhang the river. The waterfall springs from a bluff of white birch. In April the Juneberry blossoms are white in the white birch."

He thought of it as "a hidden garden. And the very poor, naturally without hope of escape in Buicks--the disenfranchised citizens of the slums--could come here." But even as he wrote, Caldwell had moved on to other work, designing for the United States War Department, and to other tangles with other bureaucracies. By the late 1950s, his garden had been taken over by the Lincoln Park Zoo, which began breeding birds there and renamed the place the Zoo Rookery. Invasive trees took root and began crowding out Caldwell's understory plantings and wildflowers, creating a thicket that sunlight could not penetrate. Tons of stone were added to ease soil erosion. In recent years the garden has been open to the public only at irregular hours. Floating trash is more in evidence in the pond than lilies are. Caldwell's pavilions are defaced, the wood rotting. Trees decline over the water's edge.

"It's the tragic end of a landscape," says Caldwell's biographer, architectural historian Dennis Domer of the University of Kansas. Last year, Domer published Alfred Caldwell: The Life and Work of a Prairie School Landscape Architect (Johns Hopkins University Press), from which Caldwell's writings quoted above are drawn. Domer says Caldwell became so distraught by the condition of his garden that he could not bring himself to visit it. "It's sacrilegious. This is one of the most beautiful and striking sites in the city. There's so little inspirational landscape left. You can not only escape the city there but really enter into a different world. And it's small enough to renovate and maintain beautifully."

That's what the Friends of Lincoln Park have planned. They have proposed a $1.5 million rehabilitation of the garden that would clear it of weeds and unwelcome vegetation, restore the kinds of native plants Caldwell placed there, dredge the pond, repair the pavilions, and check the erosion of the soil. The plan still needs Chicago Park District approval and budget support but could be implemented as early as next year.

But Caldwell will not see his garden renewed. He died in July, at 95.

"He was the last of the Prairie school architects," says Julia Sniderman Bachrach, a Park District historian. Bachrach met Caldwell in 1987, when she sat down with him for an interview.

"I was expecting the typical architect, an egomaniac," she says. "But he was charming and adorable." In 1991 she helped organize an exhibit on Chicago park landscapes for the Chicago Historical Society, an exhibit that delighted Caldwell. "He was shocked and happy that young architects remembered him and his work," she says. Not long after the show, Domer invited Bachrach to have dinner with Caldwell. They spent much of the night swapping complaints about working for the Park District.

"It never changes. He was telling stories of his bureaucratic nightmares of the 1930s and we were exchanging gossip. It was as though there was no time barrier, no age barrier. We laughed so hard we cried," she remembers. "He was never very good at dealing with that aspect of his life, existing within a large public agency. He consulted on the rehabilitation of Promontory Point in the 80s, and he was very frustrated that he couldn't do things the way they were done in the 1930s. He wanted to put in thousands of plants from seedlings, but people would walk and drive all over those young plants."

Caldwell provided a living bridge to the architectural titans of the first half of the century. He was a superintendent in Jensen's office in the 1920s and for a time studied and lived with Wright at his Taliesin home and workshop in Wisconsin. And in 1945, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe brought him to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he spent two 15-year stints as a professor of architecture and helped shape the landscape of the university's south-side campus.

Caldwell campaigned against the relentless inhumanity and overcrowding of the early-20th-century cityscape, and he provided antidotes to it--gardens and parks that located the spirit of a place and taught people to delight in it. Caldwell's creations were inspiring not because they resembled exotic and remote places, but because they seemed to spring from the local landscape. He took the trees and shrubs and stones of the midwest, the stuff others were eager to clear, and used them to compose beautiful scenes that anyone could inhabit.

Caldwell grew up poor in Ravenswood. His science teacher at Lake View High School, Hermann Silas Pepoon, was a botanist who had published a book on the flora of Chicago. Caldwell wanted to be like him. At 18 he gathered his small savings and enrolled at the University of Illinois to study landscape architecture.

Caldwell didn't stay in school long. Bored with his classes and exhausted from waiting on fraternity tables and selling trees and shrubs for a catalog company to finance his studies, he left Champaign for Chicago. Caldwell never seemed to get over his disappointment with his university experience. He liked to refer to colleges as "the academical cemetery," Domer says, even though he would teach in colleges for half a century. He eloped with a 17-year-old distant cousin, Virginia, and set up an architecture practice in the Wrigley Building. He took on a few small building and landscape projects, bought his first car, and tried to educate himself with a kind of Great Books program of his own design.

Realizing there was only so much he could teach himself, in 1924 he asked Jensen for a job. Jensen was already well-known for his work in Chicago's west-side parks, where he had developed a distinctive Prairie style of landscape gardening, turning lagoons and ponds into "prairie rivers" bordered by masses of native plants. Caldwell's job interview became a daylong Jensen lecture, at the conclusion of which Caldwell was offered a position. He returned to his car in tears. Jensen would become the "great symbol" of his life, Caldwell told Domer.

He worked on landscape jobs all over the midwest for Jensen, absorbing the master's jeremiads and helping set the massive stones that were a Jensen trademark. Working on a Jensen project near Spring Green, Wisconsin, in 1927, Caldwell stopped at Taliesin to meet Wright, who had already become a hero to him. He embarked on a fellowship with Wright, staying at Taliesin on and off between 1927 and 1932. Caldwell had begun to write poetry, and when he shared it with Wright the architect told him that writing a poem was fine but it was better to live a poem. Some of Jensen's and Wright's oversize personalities rubbed off on him.

"Caldwell's life took on the size of a myth," says Domer. "He was the defender of truth against the world. It became his psychological stance and it helped him explain his own difficulty in the world. He acquired that through Jensen and Wright."

Landscape architecture in the first decades of the 20th century was dominated by what Caldwell and Jensen liked to call, depending on their mood, "the eastern clique" or "the high priests" or "the white collar boys." Most had been educated at Harvard, many drew their inspiration from Italian villas, and Caldwell, who had received hands-on training muscling Jensen's massive limestone, had nothing but disdain for them. In Caldwell's view, they had turned their back on the landscape.

"Caldwell and Jensen saw the midwest as the heart and soul of America, the source of a unique American creativity. For them it was the place where America's genius resided," says University of Wisconsin landscape architect Bill Tishler. Jensen, and later Caldwell, drew on the natural history of the midwest for inspiration.

Caldwell's landscapes in Chicago parks were the culmination of a tradition of naturalism that dates to the mid-19th century. Jensen had immigrated to Chicago from Denmark in the 1880s and immediately been smitten with the prairie. He wrote that he felt "a great force arise from these flat lands, and I knew that here lay something far deeper, far more powerful than anything I had experienced before in the great outdoors." He planted wildflowers gathered from the countryside in his 1888 American Garden in Union Park, eschewing exotic plants that he believed did not belong in Chicago soil. He surrounded the interior of Columbus Park with berms meant to suggest ridges formed by glacial action. By the time Caldwell joined his firm in 1924, Jensen had helped found the nascent prairie preservation movement.

Caldwell absorbed Jensen's ecological fervor and paired it with a conviction that parks and open spaces, available to all, could help instill democratic values. In a 1942 essay on Columbus Park, he contrasted Jensen's design with the gardens of Versailles--for Caldwell "an expression of a despotic culture." Columbus Park "celebrates the common citizen...and the largeness of 'these states,' the vast sweep of the open landscape, the thrill of space." In essays such as "Atomic Bombs and City Planning" and "The City in the Landscape," both written in 1945, Caldwell displayed a profound social consciousness and the modernist conviction that planning can make life "simpler and freer, more secure and more satisfying."

Caldwell came of age as an architect during the Depression, when the bulk of landscape architects' work shifted from private estates to large-scale public projects. The shift gave him the chance to implement an architecture that, as he wrote, "rejects the tyranny of closure" and "asserts the rights of man to the wide green earth." Two of Caldwell's greatest achievements, the Lily Pool and Eagle Point Park in Dubuque, Iowa, date from this period and both were funded by the Works Progress Administration.

In 1934 Caldwell learned that Dubuque was interviewing architects to design a 160-acre park on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Caldwell met with the Dubuque park board and was told that another architect would design the park buildings, though Caldwell could oversee the entire project. Caldwell, who needed work badly, said he would take the job only if he could design the buildings too. To convince the board, he promised to return the next day with drawings. He walked back to the Julia Hotel in Dubuque and, according to Domer, spent the night drawing two sections, an elevation, details, and a perspective. The drawings were approved almost immediately by a city engineer. Caldwell got the job and moved his wife, three-year-old daughter, and four-month-old son to Dubuque.

Caldwell built Eagle Point Park from scratch. He opened a quarry to harvest stone and he cut wood from local timber. He trained 200 unskilled workers to cut stones, build bridges, and place native plants. The result was a park that articulated the lessons he learned from Jensen and Wright. In fact, its low-slung, wide-eaved pavilions would be forever mistaken for Wright's work. Caldwell's buildings and gardens seem to emerge naturally from the hillsides, paying homage to Wright's notion of an organic architecture developed from its natural surroundings. Architectural historian Kevin Harrington of Illinois Institute of Technology says it remains the most complete and best maintained of Caldwell's public sites.

Caldwell claimed, not altogether accurately but with some pride, that he was fired from every job he ever had. That history began in Dubuque in 1936. Some reports said that the park board fired him for clearing too many trees, others because he failed to meet deadlines. One park board member complained that Caldwell paid "too much attention to details." Caldwell told Domer he was fired "because the bastards had no dreams."

On the south-side campus of Illinois Institute of Technology, architecture is the topic of casual conversation and vehement complaint, the way the football team is at other universities. Even as busloads of overseas architecture buffs disembark to walk through Mies van der Rohe's S.R. Crown Hall, undergraduates grumble about the coldness of the campus's modernist buildings. For decades, Mies's disciples in the architecture school jealously guarded his legacy. When IIT installed a multicolored canopy at the entrance of Walter Netsch's Miesian Galvin Library in the 1980s, the uproar was so great that the offending addition was dismantled almost immediately.

The reverence in which some quarters of the architecture community hold the campus has always stood against the indifference--bordering on disdain--of students and other everyday users. Last year, while scholars gathered in Crown Hall for a conference on Mies's legacy, local papers were reporting on a college-guide survey that declared IIT's campus the nation's least beautiful. And earlier this year, when IIT unveiled Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas's design for a new campus center, the first new building at IIT in decades, it drew criticism from Mies loyalists, especially for its plan to engulf the Commons, a one-story Mies building from 1953. (I was chief editor in IIT's publications office at the time, and continue to take on occasional freelance projects for the university.)

But almost always neglected in discussions of the campus is its landscape, much of it designed by Caldwell. He joined the IIT faculty in 1945, after taking a night-school class under Mies and impressing him with his drawings. For the next 15 years he taught sophomores and juniors, delivered speeches on behalf of Mies and Ludwig Hilberseimer, another German emigre on the faculty who was uncomfortable with English, and collaborated with Mies in the dramatic postwar expansion of the campus. Around Mies's brick-and-steel buildings, Caldwell created a parklike setting, planting an understory of hawthorns and crabapples--the most gnarled, irregular specimens he could find--and a canopy of honey locust trees.

Caldwell resigned his teaching position at IIT in 1960, angry that the university had hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill--rather than Mies--to finish building the campus Mies had planned. Lured back in 1980, after teaching at Virginia Polytechnic and the University of Southern California, he resumed planting on the campus. His Morton Park, the site of a former parking lot on the northwest side of the campus, is used for graduation ceremonies.

His greatest impact, though, might have been as the teacher of generations of Chicago architects. "He taught us that everything had to be honest. To this day, if someone wants me to put striped brick on a building or something, it's impossible for me because it's not honest," says architect John Vinci, who studied under Caldwell in the late 1950s. Vinci remembers spending Christmas breaks completing the painstaking drawings Caldwell demanded. "We had to draw every brick, every mortar joint, dot the gravel. And if we were an inch off, he'd say, 'If you had another inch on the end of your nose, you'd be a monster.' He left an indelible impression."

Vinci says Caldwell was such a force with students that other faculty grew jealous of his influence. "We were in a trance from his lectures, just stunned by them. He'd say, 'Louis Sullivan died in a linen closet with a bare lightbulb overhead,' and his voice was throbbing with emotion. It was breathtaking."

Caldwell never undertook a comprehensive landscape plan for the campus, and much of the work he did was ravaged over the decades. Dutch elm disease killed many of his trees in the 1960s. IIT, in dire financial straits at times, neglected his landscape. "It looks tired," says Chicago landscape architect Peter Schaudt. IIT, now in the midst of an ambitious fund-raising campaign and eager to make the campus more attractive to prospective students, hired Schaudt and Michael Van Valkenburgh of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to collaborate on the university's first master landscaping plan. It will provide for a gradual replanting of the campus, beginning with the areas around classroom buildings west of State Street.

"Trees are going to die, and a landscape architect has to design with an understanding of land forms' impermanence," says Kevin Harrington. "It's sometimes difficult to leave a clear guide to successors, and it's particularly difficult for someone like Caldwell, whose work looks like nature would if left alone. You might think you can just leave it alone, because it looks so natural. There might be an understanding of the care and feeding that's needed over one generation or so of successors. But eventually that knowledge doesn't get translated."

Schaudt says that as much as one-third of the tree canopy Caldwell planted has been lost over the decades. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill planted trees in more formal, linear arrangements, including an allee of lindens north of the Galvin Library. More recently, IIT planted shrubs and flowers at the bases of buildings, in a suburban style that Van Valkenburgh calls "antithetical to Mies and to Caldwell and to good design in general."

The charge given to Schaudt and Van Valkenburgh is to restore the Caldwell landscape around the core of academic buildings west of State Street, while creating a plan to make the entire campus more attractive. "This isn't strictly a restoration project," says Schaudt. "We want to look to the future as well, and introduce some surprise and mystery."

Between Crown Hall and State Street, Caldwell planted irregularly spaced honey locusts, hearty enough to take the pollution and suffocating foot traffic of the city. Their high, relatively transparent canopy is "the perfect foil for Mies's work," says Schaudt. "It's the only place Crown Hall looks truly in its element," says Matthew Urbanski, an architect in Van Valkenburgh's office in Cambridge. The architects have proposed planting honey locusts all along State Street. Schaudt says he'd like to plant "hundreds and hundreds" of trees in all, to return the canopy to the lushness of the 1950s.

Schaudt and Van Valkenburgh also want to see a large pool studded with islands at 33rd and State streets, catercorner from the site of Koolhaas's new Campus Center. It's this last idea, which they haven't worked out in detail, that the architects fear might provoke the greatest opposition on campus. But Van Valkenburgh says it's consistent with Caldwell's use of water for dramatic effect in virtually all his work.

"Dennis Domer told me that the last thing Caldwell would have wanted is for us to imitate him," says Schaudt, standing outside Crown Hall. "But we do want to take his ideas and make them physically apparent here. It would be nice to be able to go somewhere and say, 'This is Caldwell's greatest work.' But it's all been transformed. It's nice to be able to show you around here, but it's sad and pathetic that I can't show you more."

Before taking a seat on one of the stone ledges that ring Caldwell's pavilions at the Lily Pool, Kathy Dickhut grabs a handful of weeds poking through a crevice in the limestone path and seems about to pull them loose. But she stops and sits down resignedly. Clearing the garden of the burdock and buckthorn that have taken over would be an enormous task.

Dickhut is managing the Friends of Lincoln Park's rehabilitation effort at the garden. Devising a plan for the restoration has been in large part an exercise in interest-group accommodation. The Friends of Lincoln Park used grants from the U.S. Forest Service, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Graham Foundation to cull input from birders and the disabled as well as casual users. Birders were hesitant to see the east side of the site, now fenced off and thick with vegetation, cleared for the reinstatement of the walking path Caldwell originally placed there. The disabled lobbied successfully for ramps in place of Caldwell's stone steps. About the only thing all agreed on was that something had to be done.

"I have a hard time spending time here, because the place is such a mess," says Dickhut. "When you see this, you just want to scream."

"This has actually been quite a good example of the way historic preservation can be compatible with restoring habitat," says Christine Williamson, the conservation chair of the Chicago Ornithological Society. Williamson's group is more concerned about the Park District's proposal to open long vistas at the Magic Hedge, a prime birding spot at Montrose Point. "The changes we're talking about at the Rookery are positive."

The tentative plan there is to reintroduce staghorn sumac, nannyberry, and other native plants to create a wooded glade. Besides dredging the pond, restoring the pavilions, and removing excess stone and concrete, the plan would also slightly expand the site to increase bird habitat. That would require the loss of some Cannon Drive parking, however. And Dickhut would like to see the garden, still officially called the Rookery, named for Caldwell. The Friends of Lincoln Park and the Chicago Park District have yet to agree on a final plan for the garden, nor is there agreement on how much of the $1.5 million rehabilitation cost would be shouldered by the Park District and how much would be raised from private sources by the Friends of Lincoln Park. The Park District has budgeted $100,000 for the site for 1999.

What becomes clear after spending any time at all in the garden is that even in its dilapidated state it maintains its ability to delight. Kids in particular seem drawn to the place. They clamber along the stone ledges and occupy Caldwell's council ring as a castle stronghold.

"People intuitively love these spaces," says Julia Bachrach. "But the problem is they're taken for granted. Part of my job is to help people understand that they don't just pop up this way naturally. They're surprised at the design process, the effort that goes into it. These places are living works of art."

Naturalism has entered the design mainstream. Native grasses grow in front of the most modest suburban homes. Landscape architects talk about sustainability. Residential "conservation communities," like Prairie Crossing in northwest-suburban Grayslake (a project on which Schaudt worked), try to strike a balance between development and preservation. Buyers there settle for relatively small lots but in the bargain get access to private trails and preserves.

One wonders what the egalitarian Caldwell would make of tying the preservation of the midwestern landscape to the purchase of $400,000 homes. Schaudt himself warns against the rise of "naturalism lite."

"Without some underlying principle, it's just a fad. It's a mistake to think that if you put down native grasses you're a naturalist. That's as bad as pansies," he says. What's missing, it seems, is the visionary fervor of Caldwell, whose intention was not to reproduce nature, but to create an abstraction of it. "When you lose people like Caldwell, you lose renegades," he says.

"Jensen and Caldwell were people who had a profound sense of place. They wanted a uniquely midwestern feel," says Bill Tishler. "Without that sense, you end up with Anywhere, USA, places that look alike and work alike. It takes the fun out of life."

In 1941 Caldwell purchased a decrepit 40-acre farm in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, and started building a home there. His work crew consisted of his five-foot wife, Virginia, his daughter, Carol, then in the seventh grade, and his son, Brian, three years younger. The family drove to the farm from Chicago every weekend, packed into the car among shovels and buckets of water. First they planted a 200-tree orchard, then dug a five-foot-deep foundation for the house. Caldwell gathered stones from neighboring farmers' fields, dragging them on sleds. One huge boulder was set aside for the lintel stone of the fireplace. When the time came to place it, a few feet over the hearth, Caldwell spent a full day splitting it in two with a mallet and chisel. Then he levered an oak ladder under one of the halves, lined his family up behind him, put his shoulder to the stone, and ordered his wife and kids to give him a push. Straining against her father's back, Carol became sure that the stone was about to come crashing down on them. She refused to push further. Caldwell told her to get back in position, and finally they wrestled it into place on the steel lintel. He placed a few smaller stones in niches under the large stone and told his family, "Nothing's going to move it now."

"It was the scariest experience of my life," says Carol Caldwell Dooley , gazing at the stone still firmly in place. "Sheer effort and backbreaking labor. In those years people would say to him, 'You're crazy. Look what you're doing to yourself. Look what you're doing to your family.' He'd just say, 'Yeah, let's see your house.'"

Over the years, Caldwell brought his IIT students to the farm and put them to work completing the long, low stone house. He hand-polished all the wood in the house--the two-by-eight-inch strips of Douglas fir for the ceiling, the panels of ash for the living room walls, and the cherry in the kitchen--and prepared the terrazzo floors, "alternately cursing and quoting poetry," says Dooley. He cleared meadows, which he fringed with clumps of trees and wildflowers, and cut paths to a stone bridge he placed over an intermittent stream.

He worked on the farm for the next 50 years. He added a studio, a garage, a council ring, and a grape arbor, underneath which the family shelled peas from the vegetable garden. When his wife complained of the afternoon sun in her face at the kitchen counter, he planted a sugar maple to shade her. And for his daughter he dug a lily pond, just outside the door of the studio, framed by wild plum trees that bloom white in the spring.

Domer says the farm remains the best and best-cared-for example of Caldwell's work. It belongs to Dooley now, and she and her family use it as a weekend home and maintain the property as well as they can. "I promised him it would always stand for what he stood for," she says, shivering in shirt-sleeves at the council ring.

She had gathered her daughter, son, son-in-law, and nephew at the farm one weekend in November to prepare the house for a memorial service they would be holding there for close friends and family. They planned to scatter Caldwell's ashes at the farm. But first the place needed readying for visitors.

"The work crew is all here and we have to get to it," she says. "It's all in the Alfred tradition." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alfred Caldwell photo courtesy IIT; Lily Pool, 1938 photo courtesy Chicago Park District Special Collections; illustration photo courtesy Dennis Domer; Lincoln Park Lily Pool, 1938, Caldwell with Jens Jensen C. 1945, Caldwell's plan for a portion of the Lily Pook 1936, Lincoln Park Lily Pool 1938 photos courtesy Chicago Park District Special Collections; 55th Street Promontory 1936, 1937, 1938 photos courtesy Chicago Park District Special Collections; Caldwell with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe c. 1958; Lincoln Park at Monrose, 1939, photo courtesy Chicago Park District Special Collections.

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