This is the second of a two-part series of posts on the career of architect Jens J. Jensen. To learn more about Jensen’s work before 1930, visit my earlier post here.
Taking a long view of the long career of Chicago architect Jens J. Jensen (1891-1969), two elements of his work stand out: his ability to work for any client (commercial, residential, institutional) and in almost any style. Placing his early works side by side with his late works reveals an architect who truly felt comfortable in his own skin as a designer. It’s hard to believe that the designer of such ornate — some might say flowery or even over-the-top — terra cotta work atop the 1925 Pioneer Arcade -
and the Moorish inspired masonry and terra cotta work atop the 1928 Hotel Guyon -
- could be the same architect who not even thirty years later designed these mid-century modern supermarkets:
For Jens J. Jensen, the simplification of his design sense over the 1930s and 1940s was an enforced one. None of Jensen’s former clients could afford to build much at all, much less in the grandiose revival styles that typified mainstream Jazz Age architecture in Chicago. The change in Jensen’s building aesthetic was also in part a result of changing architectural tastes across the country. After all, Jensen spent his entire working life in Chicago, the proving ground for American Modernism, a movement which over time banished the kind of obsessive ornamentation and historicism that had been this architect’s calling card through the boom years of the 1920s. As America moved through the lean years of the Depression and World War II, Jensen like many struggling architects of his generation felt the shift in public tastes and followed it drafting board in-hand.
Around 1930, after the Depression appeared to have ended his mixed-use commissions for Chicago developer George W. Prassas, Jensen forged a new relationship with the Charles L. Schrager Company, a developer for the Chicago-based Jewel Tea Company. Beginning as a simple one-wagon outfit in 1891, the Jewel Tea Company had by the mid-1930s expanded from being a mere coffee, tea, and spice dealer to operating dozens of stores in the Chicago area offering all manner of packaged food product and homeware. While most of Depression-era America businesses expected only doom, Jewel Tea in fact grew throughout the 1930s.
Jens J. Jensen put a face on Jewel’s optimistic growth, designing many of the grocer’s new shops in Chicago’s outlying residential neighborhoods. Images of these early stores are scarce but it is known that they were generally one-story high and constructed at the corners of busy intersections. Sometimes these Jewel stores were only one tenant of many in these new developments, but more often than not, Jewel was the sole tenant.
Jens J. Jensen’s son joined his father’s firm in 1955. Jens, J. Jensen, Jr. studied architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his training in modern architecture helped reshape the output of his father’s firm. The renamed office of Jensen & Jensen continued its close relationship with Jewel stores, developing several prototype stores for the supermarket chain as it expanded out into Chicago’s suburbs. The typical Jensen Jewel store was a low-slung one-story structure, usually with an adjacent parking lot. These new Jewels were clad in clean glazed white block with long uninterrupted strings of plate glass displaying towers of can goods and giving glimpses of shoppers inside. Always positioned at a store’s entrance was the chain’s signature tower fin with the easily-recognizable “Jewel” neon sign.
Jens J. Jensen continued working until he retired in 1961, moving to Scotsdale, Arizona where he died eight years later. Jens, Jr. continued his father’s close partnership with the Jewel chain (later Jewel-Osco). The firm Jensen & Jensen is still active in retail work and is now under the direction of Jens J. Jensen’s grandson, Jarrett Jensen.
In many ways, Jens J. Jensen’s work with Jewel from the 1930s through the 1950s gave form to a kind of retail architecture that most Americans visit everyday: the full-service supermarket and drug store. It was through Jensen’s work that many Chicagoans first came to experience supermarket shopping. A combined greengrocer- dry goods-bakery-butcher-housewares emporium was met by 1930s investors and the shopping public with some skepticism and it was in Jensen’s and his son’s solutions for Jewel’s logistically-complex business model that made the chain such a success.
Jens J. Jensen’s work on entertainment structures, on apartment houses, on office buildings like 300 W. Adams (1928), and his suburban Jewel stores (1930-1960) added to the variety of architecture seen along Chicago’s streets during the first half of the twentieth century. Many of his buildings, particularly his Jewel stores, are lost which is why it’s so important for us to hold close his work that does survive, particularly the Pioneer Arcade (1925) and the Hotel Guyon (1928).
To learn about architect Jens J. Jensen’s early career, visit my earlier post found here.
AIA Guide to Chicago (Alice Sinkevitch,ed., 2004)
Chicago History Museum Collection
Cook County Tract Room
Hotel Guyon, National Register nomination
Historic American Building Survey
Jarrett Jensen, Jensen & Jensen Architects