Shakespeare Garden

To mark the 300th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1616), the Drama League of America in 1915 put out a call for various commemorative activities, including the establishment of Shakespeare Gardens—gardens filled with plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays or common in Tudor England. In response, Drama League member and noted Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen immediately set to work on a plan for a Shakespeare Garden. Jensen studied contemporary writings on Elizabethan gardens, including Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Gardens,” and created a design for a formal English Tudor-style garden. At the time, Jensen was superintendent of Chicago’s West Park System and was becoming well-known for his adaptation of the flat prairie environment for cultivated public and private gardens. Jensen’s signature style included the use of native plants in informal settings, careful placement of stone outcroppings and water elements, and alternating open spaces with secluded forest environments. Although the design for the Shakespeare Garden was clearly a departure for Jensen, he had long been interested in the connection between theater and nature, and had written masques that were performed by the Drama League.

Alice Houston, founding member of the Drama League and member of the Garden Club of Evanston, saw Jensen’s design and in June of 1915 proposed that the newly-formed club adopt it as its principal project. Several other members of the Club, including Alice C.D. Riley, were also members of the Drama League, and the Club was quickly persuaded of the project’s merits. After some discussion about appropriate sites, the Club approached Northwestern University about placing the garden on its campus. The Club met with botany professor Charles Beech Atwell who then presented the plan to University business manager William A. Dyche. In October, 1915, Atwell and Dyche recommended the plan to University president Abram W. Harris and to the University’s Board of Trustees. Together with the Garrett Biblical Institute’s Board of Trustees, the University’s trustees, in November 1915, agreed to set aside land for the garden south of the original Patten Gymnasium and north of the site of the present Garrett buildings.

In May, 1916, the Garden Club held a garden fair in Evanston’s Raymond Park to raise funds for installing the Shakespeare Garden. The garden fair became an annual community tradition, continuing to the present. That same spring, the site for the Shakespeare Garden was cleared and leveled, the garden was laid out, and planting was begun. By 1920 the original planting was complete, largely through volunteer effort. Garden Club members and a small staff of paid caretakers worked hard to follow Jensen’s planting plans and insure that the plants survived the heat of Evanston summers and the cold of its winters. From the beginning, Jensen had cautioned Club members that many of the plants common in gardens from Shakespeare’s time might not be available or able to survive the Midwestern climate. In many ways the early years of the garden were experimental, with hard lessons learned about which plants would grow, which plants would become invasive and would have to be removed, and which plants would fail.

With the planting structure of the garden mostly in place, the Club turned to the more decorative elements of Jensen’s plan. From 1920 to 1929, the Club raised money to install a curved stone bench for the west end of the garden, and a stone memorial with a fountain and a bronze plaque with William Shakespeare’s image for the east end. The memorial was designed by Hubert Burnham, son of the architect Daniel H. Burnham, and given in honor of his mother Margaret Sherman Burnham, who served as chair of the Garden Club’s art committee. The bronze plaque was designed by French-American sculptor Leon Hermant and included quotations from several of Shakespeare’s plays. Once these decorative elements were installed in 1929, the Club felt that the garden was complete and ready to be given to the University and to the Evanston community. At a dedication ceremony held May 18, 1930, former Club president Anna Rew Gross formally presented the deed to the Garden to University President Walter Dill Scott and the University’s Board of Trustees. Although the garden was given to the University, it was, and still is, cared for by the Garden Club of Evanston.

The garden is approximately 70 feet wide and 120 feet long. It is ringed by a double row of hawthorn trees that shade stone paths between the rows. The garden is divided into eight large flower beds, with the four outside beds planted “posy-fashion,” or somewhat informally. The four inner beds are knot-gardens surrounded by low boxwood hedges. In all of the flower beds, care has been taken to use plants that were either included in Shakespeare’s writings, common during his lifetime, or are modern cultivars of these older plants. A narrow lawn of grass is in the center of the garden and four large hawthorn trees mark the four corners.

The Shakespeare Garden was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

Shakespeare Garden: Color Illustration from Syllabus
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Quick Facts

Date: 1915-20

Architect: Jens Jensen

Named for: William Shakespeare

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