Council Ring

Photo by William Cronon.

There are many people who have resided in Madison all their lives and who know the UW campus intimately who still have never stumbled upon this limestone circle nestled just above the easternmost wing of Elizabeth Waters Residence Hall. It’s tucked well out of sight, so you can easily walk right past it without ever noticing it’s here.

It is called a council ring, and it was inspired by the famous Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen. Jensen was arguably the best-known landscape architect in the Middle West during the early decades of the twentieth century. Famous for his work in Denmark, Chicago, and at his Door County retreat called “The Clearing,” Jensen founded an organization called “The Friends of Our Native Landscape” (FONL). He championed the use of native plants and of vernacular architectural features in the landscapes he designed. “A garden, to be a work of art,” he declared, “must have the soul of the native landscape in it.”

No one knows who actually designed this particular council ring, which was constructed for a meeting of the FONL in 1930. A good friend of Jensen’s, Franz Aust, was then a professor of landscape architecture at the university, so it seems highly likely that Aust played an important role in encouraging this expression of Jensen’s ideas on the campus. (Aust was also responsible with a group of his students for planting black walnut trees around Muir Knoll in the late 1930s.) When this council ring was first constructed, there was no building here, and someone sitting on these limestone walls would have had a gloriously unobstructed view of Lake Mendota. At the ceremony dedicating the council ring “to the youth of America,” Jens Jensen was the keynote speaker.

This is one of several council rings in Madison, some of which we know to have been designed by Jensen himself. There is one east of the duck pond in the Arboretum, built to commemorate the tragic death of Jensen’s grandson, and another atop the hill in Glenwood Children’s Park. Jensen saw these stone circles as emblematic of vernacular traditions evoking both the Viking past of his Danish ancestors and of Native American egalitarianism. Because a group sitting on these stones would be gathered in a continuous circle, there would be no head of the table, no hierarchy, but a simple affirmation that all members of the community are important to it.

Although this council ring is formally outside the boundaries of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve and is today maintained by University Housing mainly for students residing in Elizabeth Waters Residence Hall (completed ten years later in 1940), there is no question about its importance to the history of the Preserve landscape. Try to imagine what the view from this circle would have been like before the walls of this building and the surrounding trees stood between you and the blue waters of the lake below.