by David R. Foote [launch slideshow]
Nestled behind the dunes along the southern shore of Lake Michigan is a small community that was built by a Progressive era vision that married the fledgling fields of ecology and sociology through the interaction and friendship of some remarkable individuals. Even though they were vanguards of independent movements in conservation, the arts, architecture, and social reform, they were united by a deeply felt civic duty to heal greater Chicago of its industrial age woes. Today, the Prairie Club’s Hazelhurst stands as a testament to both the extraordinary cast who gave birth to that vision, and all those who have kept the spirit of it alive over the decades.
The Prairie Club of Chicago had been encouraging the love of nature for over twenty years when Hazelhurst was founded in 1930. From the beginning, the permanent and seasonal residents, or “dunebugs,” have been active participants in their community and have developed a unique lifestyle with a rich culture of traditions. Annual events, storytelling, songs, plays, music, games, Monday morning coffee socials, natural history presentations, and organized work days at regional parks and trails have been cornerstones of Hazelhurst’s “dunebug” tradition. Underlying it all is the desire to be good stewards of the land.
Made up of ninety-four private, cottage-style residences set unobtrusively into a 60-acre mixed pine/hardwood forest behind the beautiful dunes of Lake Michigan, Hazelhurst was designed to encourage resident interactions with the natural landscape as well as each other. There are no lawns or fences to separate the Prairie Clubbers from their wooded surroundings or their neighbors. Several common facilities are also tucked neatly into the woods and are maintained by volunteers and open for the use of all the residents and visiting members including a 600-foot beach, converted barn auditorium for special programs, small library, junior clubhouse, open park area, and several hostel-style rental facilities.
Hazelhurst embodies all of the characteristics of a modern cohousing development, yet preceded the earliest by decades. It operates like a community land trust with all the land owned in common, yet preceded the earliest of those by decades. The land immediately under a private residence is leased to the homeowner in an automatically renewing land-lease.
The remarkable vision that founded the Prairie Club is clearly evident in every aspect of Hazelhurst’s physical form and cultural identity. That vision began to form shortly after the turn of the 20th century in the recesses of several minds that came to find themselves in the same place at the same time, and though they hadn’t realized it yet, the same purpose.
The City Club
The post Civil War industrial development that propelled the United States into a world power had come with some severe side-effects. In Chicago and elsewhere, economic efficiency and expediency were the rule of the day in determining how urban areas were built. There was little regard to the impact on the human condition or the native landscape. As industrialist influence over land use and politics swelled, a pervasive sense of malaise and powerlessness seemed to settle in among the city-dwellers.
It was in this environment that the Chicago City Club, the first of its kind, was established in 1903 as a forum for reviving interest in municipal policymaking and developing ways to improve the urban condition. It quickly attracted a diverse group of civic-minded people who steadfastly believed that there had to be a better way for a city to grow.
Some came to the City Club concerned with the ever expanding grid of factories, tenements, and bungalows that were sprawling outward faster than anyone had imagined possible just a few years before, erasing all evidence of the native prairie and forests that lay in its path. Among these were Stephen Tyng Mather, a native Californian who was an active member of John Muir’s Sierra Club and had just made millions in the Borax business; Jens Jensen, the soon-to-be renowned landscape architect and the new superintendent of the West Park System (as well as a friend of botanist/geologist Henry C. Cowles, one of the founders of the field of ecology); and Alexander M. Wilson, the Chicago Tuberculosis Institute’s superintendent and member of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The City Club also attracted social reformers who believed society was paying for industrial development through the deterioration of health and well-being. These included Dr. Charles Zueblin, one of the first American sociologists and a student of the relationship between built environments and social condition; Dr. Graham Taylor, a theologian who was active with Chicago’s settlement houses (established to help poor immigrants) and who believed that the dismal urban environment was killing morality; Thomas W. Allinson, another settlement house leader, who believed that access to nature was essential for maintaining a positive outlook and sound mental health; and Paul P. Harris, a lawyer who believed in the value of serving others and the restorative powers of the natural environment.
Finally, a group of architects were present who were exploring better ways to build that could help reverse the deteriorating urban setting. This group included architectural giants like Louis Sullivan, the Pond brothers (who’s designs included the settlement houses and the City Club building), Marion Mahony (the first licensed female architect in America), Walter Burley Griffin, and Dwight H. Perkins.
A “Committee on the Universe”
Through the City Club, they would build bonds of respect and influence that would last, and in some cases shape, the rest of their lives. Much of that influence began with an ad hoc lunch group that would meet with some regularity, but whose composition would change slightly from lunch to lunch. Dwight Perkins called it a “Committee on the Universe” that brought out all of their best ideas.
They came to see that their individual causes had the same basic need. Specifically they realized a powerful symbiosis: those who would preserve the natural landscape realized that in order to protect it they needed an inspired free-thinking population to value it, and those who sought a better social condition in the city realized that their artificial surroundings were the cause of the prevalent political malaise and social deterioration.
They knew that if they could bring the natural landscape back into the lives of Chicago’s residents, they would soon come to value having the trees, blossoms, and quiet places more than anything else in the city. Having attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, architects Perkins and Mahony were very familiar with the benefits to that urban populace that came with Frederick Law Olmstead’s recent transformation of the Boston Fenway into a beautifully landscaped urban oasis of trees, waterways, and footpaths. By making the enjoyment of the natural landscape a part of everyday life, the group could satisfy a deep thirst of residents who had for too long been divorced from it.
Having the positive influence of those special places in common would help diverse individuals (many of whom were first generation immigrants) begin to see themselves as a community. They knew that a community united with shared interests and a common identity would grow strong and fight for things that they believed would make their daily lives better, not the least of which would be their new-found relationship with nature. They envisioned political power shifting away from the industrialists as communities grew stronger and more active. Building for efficiency and expediency without regard to the human condition and natural environment would become unthinkable.
The First Steps Along the Path: 1906 - 1911
As superintendent of the West Park System, Jens Jensen (himself a first generation immigrant from Denmark) immediately set to work transforming the existing city owned properties under his care into naturally landscaped treasures. He had spent years studying associations of native plants in the area with his good friend Henry Cowles. He would use this knowledge to design parks that were a human expression of the regional native landscape. His designs would include countless opportunities to encourage a community to interact within the natural setting, such as secluded places to sit in solitude or in small groups for quiet enjoyment, stone “council rings” to encourage conversation among community members in a way that diminished social hierarchy and status, places that encouraged children to play and explore, and players’ greens that used shade trees surrounding a raised grassy clearing to form a natural stage for community and ethnic performances. These designs would help launch a highly successful career in private practice and would establish Jensen as one of the greatest American landscape architects.
The architects Perkins, Griffin, and Mahony were also putting their energies into bringing nature to the city by experimenting with house and building designs that fit the region, and like Jensen’s landscape designs, were an expression of the native landscape and pioneer heritage of the area. In fact, Griffin and Mahony’s design for the Rock Glen - Rock Crest community in Mason City, Iowa (and their later design of Castlecrag in Australia) share some striking features with Hazelhurst, including homes blended into the natural landscape and preservation areas held in common. Griffin and Mahony went as far as to create designs that made buildings physically part of the landscape. In some of their designs it is difficult to tell where the natural landscape stops and the house begins.
In addition to improving the condition of the existing urban area, the group set about to influence future growth. They wanted Chicago to grow in a way that enhanced its regional identity and preserved the high quality of life common to more rural areas. To achieve this they sought to have the remaining natural lands in the path of development preserved so that the native forests and prairies would be the dominant physical feature around which new communities would be built. Just by being there and being easily accessible, they believed the natural lands could influence the development of both the physical form and social condition of the new communities. However, it would take much more leverage than just their little lunch group to push the local and state government to establish a system of urban forest preserves.
In the Spring of 1908 Alexander Wilson (who led guided walks in Maine) brought forward the idea of bringing the public out of the city for walks through the countryside, particularly the areas they most wanted to see preserved. The city residents would be able to begin to experience the benefits of getting out of their artificial world and into the native landscape, and the small group would be able to build a strong dedicated base of public support. The Saturday afternoon walks were open to everyone, and commenced in locations accessible by public transportation so that anyone could participate. Griffin, Mahony, Jensen, Perkins, Harris, Taylor, Allinson, Wilson, Cowles, and Mather were all active participants and gave the walks a high public profile. Sympathetic members of Chicago’s social elite would open up their country estates for the walkers. The popularity of the walks grew rapidly and would regularly draw hundreds of hikers out of the city. In 1911, as the group’s membership grew and the focus broadened, they incorporated as “The Prairie Club,” a name picked by Jens Jensen.
A number of people from Chicago’s arts community were prominent and influential members of the early Prairie Club. They saw in the natural landscape a limitless source of inspiration that added another dimension to the call to preserve remaining natural lands. Among these were the sculptor Lorado Taft, frontier writer Hamlin Garland, painter Frank V. Dudley, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s William M.R. French (brother of sculptor Douglas French who created the giant seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln’s Memorial). William French had been a partner of the famous landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland as a civil engineer in the development of Chicago’s South Side Parks; he had also been a neighbor and family friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As its membership grew, the Prairie Club began to push hard for preservation. Now that the natural lands, through the walks, had become important in the lives of so many, Jensen and Perkins with the support of the Club were able to get a bill through the Illinois legislature in 1913 (on the third attempt) followed by a public referendum that created the Cook County Forest Preserves as a greenbelt around a growing Chicago.
Stephen Mather, who was a member of the Club’s conservation committee, brought the Club’s philosophy to bear on national issues including the condition of the national parks in his native California. Mather would leave Chicago for Washington in 1916 where he went before Congress asking for the creation of a National Park Service that would oversee an expanded park system and provide better public access to natural areas. Mather was then appointed as the first director of the National Park Service. Much of the organizational culture and many traditions of today’s Park Service can be attributed to his 12 years as director, as well as the many state park systems that modeled themselves after the federal system.
One of the principle elements of Prairie Club culture is public service and participatory citizenship. Service was the driving passion of member Paul Harris, who had founded a separate service-oriented social club for professionals and businessmen in 1905. By 1911, his “service before self” Rotary organization had become international with 31 clubs. A decade later Rotary would have 1,000 clubs; and in 1945 would be a vast international organization called upon to help write the United Nations charter. In 1910 he met his future wife, fellow club member Jean Thomson, on a Prairie Club hike.
The idea of the Club establishing temporary and permanent camps in favorite natural areas took root around 1910. Lorado Taft and Hamlin Garland (who was married to Taft’s sister, Zulime) had been members of an artist community called Eagle’s Nest since 1898. Eagle’s Nest was founded for the arts, yet it bears striking similarities to Hazelhurst and the other Club camps in form and function: its land was held in common, small private cottages were set into the native landscape without fences or boundaries, and it too had its own unique culture.
The Prairie Club established its first camp, Tremont, in 1911 in a favorite hideaway, the secluded dunes on Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana where Henry C. Cowles and Jens Jensen had spent many years exploring (Cowles’s theories on plant ecology came from observing dune migrations). Early Prairie Clubbers would escape to Tremont at every opportunity; a “dunebug” society quickly formed as club members began to fully realize the personal and social benefits of frequent escapes to the native beauty of the dune lands. The emerging culture and strong community bonds among club members supported the vision that created the Prairie Club and hinted at the possibilities for nature-based social reform on a larger scale.
This would have been clearly evident to two Prairie Club members in particular, architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony. Griffin and Mahony had been working colleagues for some time, but through their shared interest in nature they fell in love among the trails and rivers that the Club frequented. In 1911 they were married in the Indiana Dunes. When an international competition was held that year for the design of a national capitol for Australia, Griffin and Mahony threw together all of their ideas on how a society should function in relationship to the environment and each other. Their submission was of a city that accentuated the native landscape, with an architecture that was an expression of the surrounding environment, where natural features were preserved and served specific societal functions, and where land was held in common. Their design for Canberra, beautifully presented on Marion Mahony Griffin’s larger than life earth-toned panels, was announced the winner in the spring of 1912.
The Prairie Club’s greatest challenge was to see the Indiana Dunes preserved. It was also the clearest example of the importance for a conservation movement to first be a social movement, and for the natural landscape to be an enriching part of a community’s daily life. One can easily imagine how heartbreaking it must have been for the Club’s “dunebugs” to see their beloved dunes literally carried away scoop by scoop for sand mining, then replaced with a steel mill that belched out a thick brown smoke without pause. The dunes were part of who they were, part of their identity.
The Prairie Club launched into action; raising awareness by inviting the public and influential people to large-scale masques in the dunes analogous to today’s benefit concerts (the performing arts remain a unifying tradition at Hazelhurst). The largest masque, performed in 1917, was written by Thomas Wood Stevens, had a cast of over 600, and attracted a crowd of around 50,000 to the remote location.
Despite generating a spectacular show of public support and having Stephen Mather as the National Park Service director who was on a personal mission to see the dunes preserved, the Club and Mather could not overcome wartime politics in Congress with a precedent-setting proposal to buy private land for preservation at such a large scale. Though eventually a National Lakeshore would be established, the Club had better immediate luck with the State of Indiana. Indiana Dunes State Park was created over an area that included the Club’s Tremont camp that they had agreed to sell at cost to the State.
Hazelhurst was established in Michigan a few miles north of the Indiana border in 1930 to replace Tremont. It would become a permanent home for some members, a seasonal home for others, and a frequent respite for the rest. Though many of the early members had either died or moved on to other things, the “dunebug” culture would thrive here. The essence of that culture would come from the core values of land stewardship, volunteerism, and reinforcing good moral character. The drive to participate is contagious, and alluring enough to bring even the most hardened souls out of their shells.
What Hazelhurst lacks in individualism it makes up in a celebration of individuality. Participation in the community often becomes an exercise in self expression. Nowhere is this more striking than in the small library where books are donated by residents and visitors as a means to share subjects and interests that are closest to them. If a resident wants to try his or her hand as a playwright or director, he or she only has to set a date at the Red Barn (an actual barn that was converted into an intimate performance hall) and recruit a cast. Prairie Clubbers are always giving of themselves, whether it’s telling stories around a fire on the beach, playing music at the Red Barn, or introducing children to a hobby or craft.
For the children of the residents, Hazelhurst has endless opportunities for exploring the natural world. The trails are lined with wild varieties of raspberries, mulberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapes, and morel mushrooms. There is a Junior Clubhouse at the edge of a large grassy clearing and park area where they can play a game of ping-pong or just sit and talk. There are sandy clearings that invite playing, odd-shaped trees that invite climbing, vines that invite swinging, and an endless assortment of nature’s little oddities to stir the imagination.
Along the footpaths that lead up to the houses and on many of the fireplace mantles are weird little figures made by children or grandchildren from pockets of sculpting-quality clay that can be found by shuffling feet along the sandy lake bottom. The clay will often become gray war-paint stripes on arms and faces; on occasion one may even see pygmy mud-men covered from head to toe bounding up the beach.
When the Prairie Club purchased Hazelhurst it was part of a working farm with several existing structures. The main farmhouse, the beach house “Buena Vista,” and the second floor of the Red Barn were converted into hostel and dormitory-style rentals with common kitchens that were available to Prairie Clubbers who didn’t own a residence.
Residences in Hazelhurst are restricted in size, most are small cottages with one or two bedrooms and a loft. A few are a little larger. One of the striking features that many of the original homes share are colorful rock chimneys. As the massive glaciers retreated thousands of years ago, they left behind coarsely rounded rocks of every color and description. These rocks were smoothed by waves and polished by blowing sand, giving the residences that use them a unique regional charm.
Most of the homes have screen porches that either look out to the woods, or out over the ravine, or border common trails encouraging friendly conversations with passers-by; these are places for evening games or reading, replacing television which is still a rare artifact in the community.
Through time, the concept of owning the land in common with a clear mandate for preservation has proven its worth in maintaining a strong community with a unique identity and a culture all its own. The influence of the remarkable group of Club founders made an indelible mark on Hazelhurst. It was designed preserving most of Jens Jensen’s and the Griffins’ ideals of how people should live within a native landscape. You can see the influence of Dwight Perkins and Stephen Mather in the active participatory citizenship, and Paul Harris’s influence in the culture of volunteerism and giving of self.
The Club retains Graham Taylor’s desire to see strong community bonds while promoting sound moral values, and it enjoys Thomas Allinson’s positive social benefits from living close to nature. True to Taft, Cowles, and Garland, the Prairie Club members share with each other their fondness for the natural sciences and the liberal, performing, and fine arts. And, of course, there are still hikes every Saturday afternoon.
View slideshow of 30 Hazelhurst historical and modern day images >>
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