By Anthony “TJ” Kalin, Heritage Interpreter
*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*
A few months ago I almost destroyed the mansion garden…well, sort of. I did some bad history, and this led me to make plans that would have destroyed the mansion garden…thankfully it never advanced further than my overzealous imagination.
It started in October 2018, I was teaching one my evening logic sessions at Valparaiso University. I usually have about fifteen students in these sessions, and often, after an hour they either all leave, or a few students stay and quietly do homework. On this evening all the students left by 6:45, the sessions run two hours, and I wanted to be paid, so I stuck around in case any students showed up late with a logic emergency.
I had a paper on Polish collaboration in the Holocaust due at midnight, and I was woefully short of completing it. While I should have spent my quiet hour working on the paper, I procrastinated by doing work for a different project. The other project was not as pressing, but it made my procrastination feel productive.
In this case, I avoided writing my paper by surfing through the blueprints for the Barker Mansion that I found back in March (this adventure is recounted two blog posts prior). There were about eight hundred pages of blueprints, contracts, notes, letters, work orders, and photos to sift through and I always look through them when I have time, trying to gain a full picture of what it took to build the mansion and to learn every secret the walls of this old house have been keeping from me.
So there I was, surfing through these blueprints, in an empty classroom, triumphantly procrastinating, when something dawned on me. I am not sure how the train of thought went, but it may have had something to do with the incomplete garden plans for the mansion garden. The architect of the mansion, Frederick Wainwright Perkins had designed a few different architectural features to go into the garden that were never put in place. This included a large fountain in the north wall of the garden as well as a complicated series of pillars extending out from the Pergola. We are not sure why all of Perkins’ plans for the garden were not put in place.
I had been told when I started at the mansion that our garden was designed by Jens Jensen, a famous landscape architect out of Chicago. Jens Jensen had immigrated to the United States from Denmark in the 1880s. He first worked as a laborer in Chicago parks where he rose to superintendent of the West Chicago Parks System in the 1890s. There Jensen designed Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, and other parks. Later he moved into private practice and designed gardens for Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Henry Ford’s estate and supposedly the Barkers.
I was not sure if the story about Jensen and the Barkers was true. I was told that we had Jensen’s design for the garden in our archive, but we had difficulty locating it. The Jensen design we purportedly had was pencil drawn and called for a large circular path around the garden.
It would be great if Jensen designed the garden. It would give the mansion an important connection to the Indiana Dunes, which Jensen helped save, and to the broader history of Jensen’s work in the Calumet Region. I had always wanted to probe this story further. Over the past few years I had debunked a number of similar stories about the Barkers, such as the bullet hole in the Dining Room (our old tour script wrongly claimed a worker tried to assassinate Mr. Barker in the Dining Room) or that the Haskell-Barker Car Company invented the modern assembly line before Henry Ford (many, many factories all over the world had assembly lines before Ford, Henry Ford just perfected it). I liked the Jensen story, and I did not want it to end up like the bullet hole or assembly line stories.
Thinking about the garden, thinking about Jensen thinking about my blueprints from the University of Illinois, made me realize something that night. Putting all three together, I realized that I had never looked for the mansion garden design in any archives as I had done with the mansion blueprints.
I did not even have to look too far for the Jensen designs. Usually to find blueprints or rare primary sources I have to dig around on WorldCat or other databases, contact my primary source guy, Mark Robison, a library professor at Notre Dame who can find anything, or actually visit an archive or library such as the Newberry in Chicago or the Michigan City Historical Society. I instead found the mansion garden design through a simple Google search. Jensen’s papers were in possession of the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library. Digitized images of many of Jensen’s drawing were freely available on their website, and a finding aid with lists of all of Jensen’s commissions was also available.
I searched the collection for “Michigan City,” and sure enough the Barkers were there, but there was a bit more than expected. One blueprint labeled “For Mrs. Barker” from 1909 was available to download online, but there were also four more garden designs listed for Michigan City that could not be downloaded. I needed to find a way to get those blueprints….but I lacked time to drive to the University of Michigan. An imaginary light bulb went on over my head.
VU had sponsored my book writing project for the past year through a research grant as well as having it count for course credit. Since the blueprints were sources that would play a significant role in my research, I could order scans of the remaining four blueprints through the Valparaiso University Interlibrary Loan department. I sent in a long request and the next day the department told me that they could do it, but it would take a few weeks to process the request. I was ecstatic.
I had already downloaded the blueprint that was available online. This blueprint was made in 1909 and was ‘For Mrs. Barker.’ The design detailed a far different design of the mansion garden than expected. This design included the same dimensions as the current garden with the same placement of the Pergola and Tea House, but the layout was radically different. Instead of the plus-sign-shaped pathway in the garden, this design had a circular path around the outside of the garden. The same fountain that is there today was still in place, but it had a garden of “Japanese and Siberian Iris” around the outside. The circular pathway was bordered with lilies. Daffodils filled in the space behind the lilies.
The design was stunning and quite detailed, but it was not the design that was currently out there. I had now confirmed that the Barkers commissioned Jensen, but it was not clear if he designed our current garden. There were some continuities though. The design included the current fountain shape (but it was inlaid), the statue of the Greek god Hermes in the same location it is today, and other details.
This blueprint was labeled ‘remodeling’ of formal garden for Mrs. Barker. ‘Remodeling’ made me think that this was the intended design for the garden, that the Barkers wanted this design in place. I hastily (and incorrectly) assumed that this was the Barkers’ vision for the garden and I wanted to see if it was possible to rebuild it. My mind raced, and I realized that I needed to talk to someone who knew about design…I knew just the person.
In addition to being a logic teaching assistant and my job at the mansion, I also work as a project manager for an environmental consulting firm in Valparaiso, Earthwise Inc. Earthwise acts as a middleman between farms and government agencies such as the EPA. Our environmental engineer on staff, Scott Harmon, whom we call Sharmon to differentiate between him and our boss who is also named Scott, would know what to do with this blueprint. The next day I was at Earthwise, and I brought the design to Sharmon and asked his opinion on it.
Sharmon printed the design for me on large paper. I now felt authoritative and quite cool with my large garden blueprint in hand. Sharmon looked it over with me and told me any landscaping firm could put the design in place with this design.
I was tickled, my twenty-four-hour-old dream of constructing the Jensen design seemed within reach. I immediately started looking at historic garden restoration grants (there were quite a few). I located several good ones, put them into Asana, a project management software I like to use, and outlined the steps of a several year plan to wipe out the current layout and REBUILD THE JENSEN GARDEN!
This is where I did bad history, I let my excitement get ahead of me, and I drew conclusions before looking at the full scope of sources. A good historian reviews all the possible documents before drawing any sort of conclusion.
Thankfully I never even took one step in my Asana plan. Cooler heads prevailed, though the cooler head was not mine, it belonged to my boss, mansion director Emily Reth. Emily wisely told me to wait for the other blueprints to arrive before evening thinking about grants and even then it would take years to get approval to redo the garden. I calmed down, and I decided to wait for the remaining blueprints to arrive from the Interlibrary Loan in a few weeks.
A month later I was in Miyazaki, Japan visiting my future in-laws. On the morning of November 20th, I woke up early to head to Kagoshima, the farthest southern point on Kyushu island, to visit the Chiran Peace Museum. Chiran was the name of the airbase where the majority of the Kamikaze (or as they are called in Japan: Tokko) pilots took off from in the battle of Okinawa. Nearly five hundred pilots from Chiran died in the battle. My future father-in-law, Mitsuhiro, knew I was a history nerd and wanted to take me to the museum to see what my thoughts were on the Tokko pilots.
I was very excited to go because first of all it was a museum and second of all it meant a four-hour car ride in Japan where cars drive on the left side of the road (which I found quite exciting). Plus, the highway was quite scenic: we passed an erupting volcano in Kagoshima and drove through beautiful mountains the whole way, which was thrilling for a Hoosier like myself. We were setting off to leave for the drive from Miyazaki to Chiran when I made the mistake of checking my email.
There, sitting in my inbox was an email from Interlibrary Loan with four attachments. My heart raced, I knew what it was! The blueprints were here! But, I had to leave for the car ride! I had opened the email on my phone, and the attachments were too large to open on it. I hence closed my email and climbed in the car.
In the back of my head all day I knew the blueprints were there. It did not distract me from having a great day though, the blueprints did not gnaw at me and make me impatient. I went to a restaurant where you eat Somen, a cold summer noodle that you dip in a mixture of soy sauce and fish powder. At the restaurant, you put the noodles in a small river on the table and dip chopsticks into the river to fish out the noodles. Visiting the Chiran Peace Museum later was very moving; it was filled with letters that Tokko pilots wrote to their families before their missions as well as flags that the pilots signed. All day though, the blueprints were waiting for me.
At the end of the day, we went to an Izakaya, a type of bar where they serve Japanese fried food and ate way too much while I talked to Mitsuhiro and my future mother-in-law Reiko about the museum. I got back to their home very late and tired but I immediately opened the photos on my computer.
The email contained four blueprints. To my disappointment, the first blueprint was not for the mansion, it was a landscaping plan for the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) plant. The plan was signed by Jensen October 26, 1930. This design was rather plain, it included pathways and a few plant-types for the outside of the boiler and turbine buildings.
Jensen was also a founding member of the Save the Dunes Council. Jensen like many middle-class Chicagoans saw the dunes as a mythic escape from the rapid urbanization that had swallowed up Chicago in the late Gilded Age and during the first world war he worked to save the duneland from total industrialization. I was curious why Jensen, the early advocate for the Indiana Dunes, designed the garden for NIPSCO, a power plant built over the former site of the Hoosier Slide. The Hoosier Slide was Indiana’s largest sand dune. Between 1890 and the early 1920s the entire dune was sold off and shipped downstate to Muncie where it was made into glass jars. I cast this puzzle aside and looked at the other three blueprints, which turned out to exceed even my wildest historical dreams.
All three drawings were for the Barkers! All three were dated around 1909 when the addition to the mansion was complete. The first design, labeled ‘No.I’ submitted July 1909 (the only one with a month labeled), called for a large circular pool in the center of the garden with six sprayers. Flower planters with hedges behind them formed a circle around the garden.
Another design, dated 1909 ‘for Mrs. Barker’ called for a large rectangular pool with two fountains set in front of the pergola. This design lacked a number. The statue of Hermes that is today in the northwest corner of the garden was located in the small grass courtyard, labeled ‘Grass Court,’ off of the library veranda. There were some flowers along the edges of the garden and a big open space in the middle of the garden. The teahouse could only be accessed by going around the sides of the garden. It would have been interested to have such a large pool in the garden, but I was a little glad this design was not put in place because it would have meant that (1) I would have a lot more pool skimming to do at work in the summers and (2) we would not be able to host weddings in the garden.
The third drawing was labeled 1909 ‘For Mr.Barker,’ and to my surprise, it was the current garden design. It included the same benches, fountain, walkway, and other design elements that are there today. This design also had all the original plants listed. There were circular flower planters in each corner of the inner garden when I started working at the mansion, there were hedges in the spots. We took the hedges out two years ago, and those spots are only grassed now. The small area off the veranda was labeled ‘The Green.’ The Green left empty and may have been used for croquet. Today this area is heavily planted and has a large trellis.
I smacked myself in the head, my hasty impetus to rebuild the first blueprint would have destroyed the true Jensen design. My boss Emily was right, I certainly lacked patience. Historical-humility and primary-source-patience were a valuable lessons Jensen’s design taught me, but I also learned a lot more.
Here’s what we can know from these blueprints: Jensen submitted at least four designs to the Barkers. One was submitted in July 1909 and labeled No.I, meaning ostensibly that these designs were commissioned in the summer around the time that the Barkers moved into the new addition to the mansion. Three of them were commissioned by Mrs. Barker, and a fourth was ordered by Mr. Barker. Two of the designs are numbered one and four, so other designs may have been submitted. We now definitively know that Jensen designed the garden, but we do not know the order in which the designs were submitted, how many were submitted, nor can we know what the Barker’s intentions were. I will dig further, and hopefully, I can find more.
While the big question of whether Jensen designed the garden has been answered, new questions have presented themselves. Is the current design the first garden design put in place? Were all the other design remodel’s? Why was Mr. Barker’s commissioned design put in and not Mrs. Barkers? After all, she made most of the decisions for the design of the mansion, why is the garden different?
When answering questions about the past, a historian also maps out the possibilities presented by documents. These possibilities are not definitive answers, but they can guide the questions we ask. For example, all the blueprints were dated 1909, but they lacked specific dates. Thus it is possible that the first blueprint was submitted after the ‘For Mr. Barker’ design was put in place. Mrs. Barker may not have been happy with that design and had ordered this design and others from Jensen. She passed away in May 1910, a time of year when the Garden would have been remodeled, and these designs may not have put in place because she passed away.
I need to learn more about the garden to see the full story. Catherine Barker made some changes to the garden, supposedly she put in broadleaf plants that were popular in the 1920s. Purdue University made changes, we have a photo of them laying the concrete for the current fountain (which is the right shape, but it is raised, Jensen’s design called for an inlaid fountain). Some changes made by the museum, such as flower beds around the fountain. Piecing together the timeline of these changes is another step that I need to take.
These blueprints made for one great adventure in the mystical world of primary sources. In the spring I will offer an interpretive program about Jensen in the Barker Mansion garden, and I put a small exhibit about the garden designs together on the 2nd floor. The blueprints also made their way into two chapters of my book. Besides interpreting the blueprints, I also want to put them to their original use.
Our goal inside the mansion has been to rearrange things to match the layout in our 1911 photos of the interior, Jensen’s design gave us a guide to now match the exterior to 1909. In the spring I hope we can use the 1909 design to guide how we prepare the garden for the summer. While we lack the resources to put it in place completely, we can potentially add some details such as the urns around the fountain or possibly sodding over the Green. Someday I want to install an interpretive sign about Jensen in the garden that includes the blueprints and information about Jensen’s role in the history of landscape architecture and the fight to save the Indiana Dunes. Jensen’s design is one point where the history of the mansion touches on the broader history of the region, my dream is to make this point of contact more robust. With any luck, we can add a few more pieces of Jensen’s vision to Michigan City history.
TJ Kalin December 26, 2018