Henry Jensen, Master Carpenter Contractor

Henry Jensen, Master Carpenter Contractor

Written by David Siegenthaler

In 2015 the City of Elgin instituted a new annual award to recognize the best renovation or remodeling project completed within the year. The award is called the Henry Jensen Award in honor of an extraordinary carpenter contractor who lived in Elgin from 1871 to 1918. Jensen probably built or renovated more than 200 Elgin homes, from modest workers’ cottages and bungalows to elaborate Queen Annes and Prairie-style homes.

The first Henry Jensen Award winner at 359 Park St.

Jensen also built at least three Elgin churches (at 76 S. Jackson St., 357 Division St. and 224 Division St., all still standing), two hospital buildings (at 934 Center St. and 600 Villa St., both now gone), the Lords Park Pavilion, and several apartments, factory and store buildings. He worked with all of the prominent architects of his day, including W.W. Abell (whose home he built), Smith Hoag, David Postle, Gilbert Turnbull and George Morris.

Unlike architects, most builders do not achieve a lasting legacy or prominence. What makes Jensen different, in addition to the quality and volume of his work, is the existence of two “estimate books” covering the years 1898 to 1915, when his career ended. In these books Jensen recorded building specifications, floor

plans and sketches of about 175 buildings, which he used in preparing bids. The accurate and artistic attention to detail shown in these drawings and specifications is reflected in Jensen’s construction. See Steve Stroud’s book There Used To Be, Volume 3, for excellent examples from the estimate books. The entire contents of Jensen’s books are currently being digitized and will soon be available online through the Illinois Digital Archives.

Fortunately, Jensen’s books have survived all these years. In 2008 they were donated to the Elgin History Museum by historian Mike Alft, to whom they were entrusted by a person who bought them at a garage sale. Though Jensen was not an architect, his books are the closest items our Museum has to architectural plans of early Elgin homes and buildings. Jensen began his building career in the 1870s, so these books, beginning in 1898, represent only the last part of his career.

The very first home to receive the Henry Jensen Award, just months ago, was the Queen Anne home at 359 Park St., directly across the street from our Museum. Though Jensen did not build this home, the beautiful and sensitive remodeling work reflected his craftsmanship.

One of the best examples of Jensen’s Queen Anne-style homes is the Alfred Bosworth mansion at 705 West Highland Ave., built in 1894 and designed by Smith Hoag.

Jensen-built Queen Anne-style home, 705 W. Highland Ave

One of the best examples of Jensen’s Prairie-style homes is the Allen Retan home at 420 Douglas Ave., built in 1909-10 and designed by George Morris. Both of these homes have been awarded historic plaques and are excellent examples of their styles.

Henry (Heinrich) Jensen was born September 13, 1852 in Niebull, Schleswig, Germany, to Siegfried and Herrlich Petersen Jensen. Henry was their second child, born about two years after Peter. Herrlich died while giving birth to Henry. Siegfried then married Hannah Jensen (1820-1905). Siegfried and Hannah had four children: Andrew, Friederike, Christian Detlef (died in infancy) and James.

Henry immigrated to America in April 1871 and proceeded directly to Elgin. Half-brother Andrew immi-grated in March 1872 and also came directly to Elgin. In June 1874, the remainder of the Jensen family— Peter, Friederike, James and Hannah—arrived in America and joined Henry and Andrew in Elgin. Henry’s father, Siegfried, died in Germany in 1873. The family is first listed in the 1875-76 directory as liv-ing at 61 Franklin Boulevard, a home gone by 1910.

Friederike (1857-1935), Henry’s half-sister, married John Charles Jansen in 1876. By the 1900

 

census, Han-nah, now 79 years old, was living in Dundee with her daughter Friederike and son-in-law. Hannah, Henry’s stepmother, died in 1905. Friederike and J.C. Jansen had six children. The Jansen family bought the Wilcox farm along Big Timber Road in the early 1900s and later sold it to the Burnidge brothers, who subdivided and developed it. Today the old farm site includes an industrial park, a Metra commuter station and Century Oaks West Subdivision.

Sometime in the mid-to-late 1870s, Henry built the frame, cross-gabled home that still stands at 55 Seneca St. By the 1880 census, Henry was living here with his brother Peter, half-brothers Andrew and James, and his stepmother Hannah.

On January 20, 1881, Henry married Friederike Krumm (1855-1929), a native of Mecklenberg, Schwerin, Germany. Friederike immigrated to America in 1872 and came to Elgin in 1874. She and Henry had four children: Herman Peter (died at six months in 1882 of cholera); Emma May (1883-1921; a teacher at Franklin School); Walter Paul (1887-1976; a carpenter contractor); and Inga Elizabeth (1891-1917; a commercial artist).

In about 1883 Henry built a home at 24 Warwick Place for his brother Peter. This home, still standing, is one of the earliest examples of the Queen Anne style in Elgin.In 1887-88 Henry built his own Queen Anne home next door at 18 Warwick Place. Peter Heine Jensen (1850-1924) was one of Elgin’s most expert and artistic bookbinders, employed for 50 years at the Elgin Daily News. In 1883 Peter married Minnie Krumm, a sister of Henry’s wife, and they had four children.

Jensen family, c. 1900. L-R, top: Andrew, James and Henry; bottom row: Friederike Jansen, Hannah and Peter

In 1881, half-brother Andrew (Andreas) Fred Jensen (1854-1944) bought a farm along Crawford Road in Plato Township from his sister and brother-in-law. In 1883 he married Maria (Mary Lena) Rambow and they had 12 children, including one who died in infancy and another at eight years old. In 2006 Andrew’s farm (then owned by Mike Arians, a great grandson of Andrew) was sold to the Kane County Forest Preserve District, who restored it to its natural state. Today it is the easternmost part of the Bowes Creek Woods Forest Preserve.

Henry’s youngest half-brother, James (Jens) C. Jensen (1866-1948), a carpenter, married Dora Fritz in 1890. They had no children. In 1889 Henry built a double home for James, which still stands, at 478-80 Laurel St. One of Henry’s last projects was the building of the four-home Laurel Court development in 1915-16, located behind the homes at 470 and 474 Laurel St.

In 1878 Henry Jensen filed a “Declaration of Intention” to become a U.S. citizen. However, he apparently never filed the final document, the “Petition of Naturalization,” to actually become a citizen.

Henry died July 14, 1918 at age 65 of myocarditis, with pleurisy as a complication. He was buried in Bluff City Cemetery. His obituary said, “he was a lover of trees and flowers and gave most of his spare time to the planting and cultivating of them. He was fond of read-ing and a student of books of which he possessed a handsome collection. [He] was a quiet, unassuming man of a kindly disposition and possessed exceptional artistic ability. Carved furniture and wall spaces in his home, as well as many of his buildings, testify to his handiwork.”

Acknowledgements: Mike Alft’s books and newspaper articles; probate files; federal censuses; city directories; naturalization records; newspaper building reports; obituaries; etc.; family photo and genealogical information from Kim Miels, a half-great-grand-niece of Henry Jensen. All home photos by Judy Van Dusen.


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