Johnny Ginkgoseed | The Reader's Guide Feature | Chicago Reader

Johnny Ginkgoseed 

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In April 1865, two decades before Jens Jensen began to make his mark on Chicago's parklands, Scottish landscape gardener John Blair arrived from Rockford to create a horticultural display for Chicago's Sanitary Fair, which raised money for wounded Union soldiers. The display, housed in a 370-foot-long structure at Michigan and Washington, included evergreens, shrubs, flowers, a stream, and a cedar bridge. After the exhibit's successful debut--"Nature and art vie with each other, and each, surprisingly beautiful, lend their charms to the other's beauty," gushed the Chicago Times--Blair bought a home in Oak Park, and is believed to have planted on the adjacent lot what is now one of the oldest ginkgo trees in the United States. Over the next six years he supervised work on several Chicago parks, including Union, Lincoln, and Ellis, and worked on the estate of developer Henry W. Austin, after whom the Austin neighborhood is named. In 1871 he relocated to Colorado Springs, and later settled on a farm in British Columbia; in 1889 he sold the Oak Park house to Frank Lloyd Wright--it's now the site of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. He died in 1906 at 80, and in the 97 years since, his work's been hailed for breaking with old-world custom: "Instead of following the European tradition that emphasized sweeping lawns and evergreen hedges," William Dale wrote in the 2000 book Pioneers of American Landscape Design, "Blair incorporated existing trees, rocks, and water into his designs to create more natural settings." Blair will be the subject of a free slide lecture prepared by Dale, a retired civil engineer in Sidney, British Columbia, and Carol Kelm, a volunteer for the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. Kelm will give the talk on Friday, April 11, at 7:30 at the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest's Pleasant Home, 217 Home in Oak Park. For more information call 708-848-6755.

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