Jens J. Jensen: A Chicago Jazz Age Architect at the Supermarket 1930-1960

19 Apr

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 –

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

and the Moorish inspired masonry and terra cotta work atop the 1928 Hotel Guyon –

A 2009 view of the Hotel Guyon, designed by Jens J. Jensen and completed in 1928. The Guyon's windows have since be removed and the building is now open to the elements. Photo by author

– could be the same architect who not even thirty years later designed these mid-century modern supermarkets:

A Jewel grocery store in Mt. Prospect, IL, designed by Jens J. Jensen. Image from the Chicago Tribune January 9, 1954

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.

A mid-1950s Jewel store in Harvey, IL, designed by Jens J. Jensen. Photo from Jensen & Jensen Architects

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.

Chicago area Jewel stores of the 1950s designed by Jens J. Jensen. Image from the Chicago Tribune January 9, 1954

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

Chicago Tribune

Cook County Tract Room

Hotel Guyon, National Register nomination

Historic American Building Survey

Jarrett Jensen, Jensen & Jensen Architects


3 Responses to “Jens J. Jensen: A Chicago Jazz Age Architect at the Supermarket 1930-1960”

  1. Carey Lundin April 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Thanks for this piece on Jens J. Jensen and the confusion with Jens Jensen. A funny thing happened with the landscape architect, when he in his 90s another Jens Jensen died in Wisconsin, where he was living, and the papers wrote an obit about him dying. He had to write a I guess you’d call it a rebuttal, that news of his demise was incorrect.

    PS / We are making a documentary about Jens Jensen – you can watch the trailer on our site:

    • johndcramer April 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

      Thanks for comment, Carey. During research, it certainly took some time disentangling the story of Architect Jens J. from Landscape Jens, but it was great to learn how much Landscape Jens was part of the conversation about building in Chicago during the first decades of the twentieth century. I live near Humboldt Park and always give a nod as I walk past Landscape Jens’ old office at the Humboldt Park Stable. What an endlessly fascinating guy – more Americans should know his name.

      What a great trailer! I can’t wait to see the finished show! Thanks, Carey – JC

  2. Brian Wolf May 28, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    Jensen also was in a firm, Jensen & Teutsch, with Carl M. Teutsch in the late 1930s. Teutsch also designed many, many grocer-anchored shopping centers from the 1930s onward. One nice example was in Des Plaines, 1937: . You can certainly see Jensen’s deco exuberance merging with chain store style (note also the small Jewel store just a few doors down which may also have been from that firm.) Unfortunately, that facade lasted only about 10 years before it was replaced with limestone, and the building itself no longer survives.

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