Jens J. Jensen: A Chicago Architect in the Jazz Age 1915-1929

19 Apr

This is the first of a two-part series of posts on the career of architect Jens J. Jensen.  To learn more about Jensen’s work after 1930, visit my second post here.

The Hotel Guyon in 2009 before its windows were removed. Photo by author

In my last post, I took a closer look at the fantastic Pioneer Arcade, a 1925 Spanish Baroque-inspired bowling palace built at 1535-1541 N. Pulaski Rd. in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park community.  Two miles south of the Pioneer Arcade along Pulaski Road (formerly Crawford Avenue) are two more spectacular works in exuberant Spanish revival styles, and by the same architect too: a two-story storefront at 26 N. Pulaski from 1929, and the imposing ten-story Hotel Guyon at Pulaski and Washington from 1928.  Any study of the architectural heritage of Chicago’s West Side (and Chicago architectural history in general really) requires a look at the architect who designed these great 1920s structures, the Danish-American architect Jens J. Jensen (1891-1969) who built primarily in Chicago during an astounding fifty-year long career.  Jensen’s work has been a big interest of mine since I studied him for my historic preservation master’s thesis on Chicago’s 1920s commercial recreation centers (his 1925 Pioneer Arcade was one of the city’s grandest).

26 N. Pulaski, designed by Jens J. Jensen and completed in 1929. Photo by author

Jens J. Jensen (“Jens J.” is easier to spit out without stumbling over consonants) wasn’t the only Danish-born Jens Jensen working in Chicago during the first decades of the twentieth century.  He is still often confused with the great landscape architect Jens Jensen though Jens J. was of no relation and was in fact thirty years younger.  Even the definitive AIA Guide to Chicago incorrectly attributes the Hotel Guyon to the elder Jensen (a hotel tower for a jazz impresario would certainly have been some departure for an elder landscape architect used to designing parks and conservatories).  In addition there were a handful of Jens Jensens practicing architecture in Chicago during the 1910s and 1920s, but his conspicuous designs and high level clients have pushed Jens J. Jensen’s very singular reputation to the fore.

The Pioneer Arcade, designed by Jens J. Jensen and completed in 1925. Photo by author

Jensen  was born in Herning, Denmark in 1891 and immigrated as a child with his parents to the United States around the turn-of-the-century, settling in Chicago.  Jensen attended Chicago’s Lewis Institute (one of the predecessors of the Illinois Institute of Technology), apprenticed in the architecture firm of Francis M. Barton, and received his Illinois State architectural license in 1915.   By the age of thirty, Jensen had established his office at 1103 W. Lawrence Avenue in Chicago (the John Eberson-designed Aragon Ballroom was later built across the street) and soon gained the reputation of an architect with technical acumen and stylistic versatility, able to work in any size, type, or style.

300 W. Adams, the Chicago Landmark designed by Jens J. Jensen and completed in 1928.

Jensen’s capacity for creativity fit his times.  The amount of construction in Chicago during the 1920s was at a level unprecedented since the Great Fire of 1871 and builders and investors of this boom decade built big and built extravagantly in almost every conceivable historically-inspired style.  The varied demands and tastes of Jensen’s 1920s clients can be seen in his work of the decade, including small storefronts, multi-level apartment buildings, and large-scale commercial, hospitality and entertainment developments:

  • Mediterranean style apts at Ainslie and Christiana completed before 1930. Photo by author

    A Tudor Revival style apartment building at 2342 N. Kedzie Blvd, completed in 1927.

  • A Mediterranean style apartment building at W. Ainslie and N. Christiana, completed sometime before 1930 (image at right).
  • The Classical Revival Astra Hotel at 5324 N. Winthrop, completed sometime before 1927 (image below).
  • The Spanish Colonial Revival Pioneer Arcade, built for bowling and billiards entrepreneur Gust Regas, completed in 1925 (image above).
  • The Hotel Guyon at Washington and Pulaski, designed by Jens J. Jensen and completed in 1928. Another photo taken before the windows were removed. Photo by author

    The Hotel Guyon, completed in 1928 and built for J. Louis Guyon to continue his dominance of Chicago’s West Side entertainment district at Madison and Crawford Aves.  Jensen’s stately Venetian, Moorish, and Spanish Colonial Revival style hotel accommodated pleasure-seekers visiting the Paradise Ballroom, Guyon’s other holding  just across the street completed in the early 1920s.  Also nearby was Balaban and Katz’ legendary Paradise Theater (also completed in 1928).  The hotel once hosted events in its ballrooms and was even the headquarters of a Guyon’s own music radio station. With the Paradise Ballroom and Theater now both gone, the Hotel Guyon is all that remains of the once vibrant West Side “bright lights” district.  Its windows have been removed and the building is now completely open to the elements. It’s going to take some real public outcry to get this building on the city’s radar again.

  • The Romanesque Revival St. Edmund Church, today St. Anselm Church at 6101-6115 S. Michigan Ave.
  • The twelve-story Neo-Gothic terra-cotta-clad skyscraper at 300 W. Adams, completed in 1928 and today a designated Chicago Landmark (image above).
  • Even a Prairie style-meets-Deco building on W. Erie in North Loop, attributed to Jens J. Jensen by the Chicago Historic Buildings Survey.

1412 W. Devon, a 1920s mixed-use development designed by Jens J. Jensen. Photo by author

In the mid-1920s, Jens J. Jensen formed a powerful creative partnership with Greek-American developer George W. Prassas, acting as architect for several of Prassas’ block-size multi-use developments on Chicago’s North and West sides.  Jensen’s designs typically included sidewalk level commercial storefronts and one to two stories of apartment residences above, all wrapped in elegant Classical Revival style facades of gleaming glazed terra cotta.  George W. Prassas would later expand on his commercial development success of the 1920s and become a pioneer builder of Chicago’s first large-scale suburban shopping malls.  Several of Jens J. Jensen’s 1920s Prassas commissions survive, including examples at the northeast corner of W. Argyle and N. Kenmore, the southwest corner of N. Pulaski and W. School, and the northeast corner of N. Harlem and E. Grand.

Uptown's Astra Hotel, designed by Jens J. Jensen and completed before 1927. Photo by author

Jens J. Jensen was one of Chicago’s more successful young solo architects of the 1920s, completing a  scale of work that’s pretty hard to conceive of today.  Jensen was also among the scores of architects put out in the cold by the events of Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929.  The Wall Street crash and the decade-long economic disaster that followed it all but obliterated the building market in Chicago and sent many of the 1920s development spendthrifts into forced hibernation.   For many young architects across America, this meant the disappearance of reliable work and, for some, the end of their architectural careers.  (Sound familiar to anyone in today’s financial crisis?)

Jens J. Jensen, however, survived the 1930s and managed to reinvent his office by bringing in new clientle.  He helped to invent the burgeoning retail experience of  supermarket shopping and in the process developed a new personal style that appealed to mid-century America’s fast-changing tastes in architecture and design.

More on Jensen’s second half in my next post.


AIA Guide to Chicago (Alice Sinkevitch,ed., 2004)

Chicago History Museum Collection

Chicago Tribune

Cook County Tract Room

Hotel Guyon, National Register nomination

Historic American Building Survey

Jarrett Jensen, Jensen & Jensen Architects


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