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Corliss Knapp Engle

Oral History Interview with Corliss Knapp Engle (1936–2009), undertaken by Elizabeth Gettinger and Anne Steptoe at the Arnold Arboretum on July 23, 2009. Corliss Engle died on November 26, 2009.

AS: We are Elizabeth Gettinger and Anne Steptoe, and today is the 23rd of July, 2009. We are here at the Arnold Arboretum to speak with Ms. Corliss Engle about her association with Beatrix Farrand and Dumbarton Oaks over the years. Thank you very much for joining us.

CE: Glad to be here. Now how do we want to start?

EG: Maybe we could start – you could tell us a little about your relationship to Beatrix Farrand.

CE: Good, and I think that probably my big importance here would be the pronunciation of Farrand.

AS/EG: Yes

CE: In any case, my grandmother, May Dalton Carleton Knapp, her sister was Daisy Farrand, Daisy Carleton Farrand, who was married to Livingston Farrand, who was the president of Cornell in the 30s. Livingston’s parents’ brother was Max Farrand. So that makes – that is the circuitous relationship. And I was very friendly with Daisy Farrand’s daughter, Louisa Farrand Wood, who was a gardener. And my aim is to try and keep the women in – the Farrand women who were involved in gardening straight, their connections, namely Daisy Farrand, Livingston Farrand, and Louisa Farrand Wood, as well as to pass along the way I have been trying to teach people how to pronounce “Farrand.” The world would like to pronounce it “Farrand”, which would send the finger nails on the blackboard up the family. And I came up with something years ago for people to remember that it’s “Farrand.” And I say “Beatrix was fair and good”, and that hopefully will give everybody the way to remember. So, I may have accomplished my main goal right now. So, anyhow – do you have any questions?

AS: I was wondering – we understand that you heard through your family connections several stories about Beatrix Farrand.

CE: Yes, I understood from Louisa Farrand Wood that Beatrix was not a stern scary dragon. She may have appeared as a dragon to people. But Louisa said she was a very warm and caring person. The second thing I do – I came across today – is I wrote a review of Diane Kostial McGuire’s book for Arnoldia a number of years ago, and I think it never was published. But apparently one thing I did say is that Beatrix would never have liked to be referred to in today’s way we do it, as “Farrand” – referred to as “Farrand” or refer to me as “Engle.” Because whenever she would be referred to, she would be referred to as “Mrs. Farrand,” because she was of the era, and much as it – in a previous generation, if a woman won an award, she would have it printed in her husband’s name. It would have been “Mrs. Livingston Farrand”, whereas today, you and I would require it to be Beatrix Jones Farrand. So, there’s a change of view on that. Now, since this is an oral history, we have to keep going, talking.

AS: Do you have any Beatrix Farrand memorabilia?

CE: What few papers about Beatrix Farrand I had, I gave to Garland Farms, which is establishing a library, as you know, in Mount Desert. And what I was trying to do was to establish the relationship in American gardening of Beatrix Farrand, Daisy Farrand, the wife of the president of Cornell, who fancied herself quite a gardener and who designed quote “The President’s Garden” behind the president’s house at Cornell. I don’t know if she was trying to keep up with her sister-in-law, but I suspected, if you look at her face, you will see there is a theatricality to her. And her daughter, Louisa Farrand Wood, who was married to William Wood, who was a professor of journalism in Columbia, had a garden in New Canaan, and she fancied herself a gardener too, and she came from the same theatrical bed, which is another story. But, when she and her husband retired to Savannah, Georgia, she had a house on Jones Street and designed a garden behind – and by this time, you understand that she’s imbued with the spirit of garden design and the Farrand legend. And Louisa Farrand Wood is the woman who donated the Beatrix Farrand portrait to Dumbarton Oaks, by the way – I’m sure that’s well documented – but in any case, Louisa got into the spirit of Savannah and decided with all these wonderful small gardens behind the row  houses of downtown Savannah, which was being reclaimed at the time from destruction by people who – by historic Savannah – to do this book Behind the Garden Walls. And she described every garden, had a plan done of the garden, had this wonderful man do the paintings, and then she – I got involved with the book because I knew Thalassa Cruso. Now Thalassa Cruso Hencken was of the same finish as Julia Child on TV. And Julia Child had her cooking program and Thalassa Cruso had her gardening program. These were both – it was in the 70s, and so Thalassa Cruso had a name which my aunt or cousin Louisa Farrand Wood thought would be good to impart to this book. On top of that, we thought it would be wonderful if the nomenclature was gone over, because there were all these wonderful lists of plants in here. So then one of the taxonomists here at the Arnold Arboretum – Dick – his name will come to me. It was Richard, or Dr. Richard Weaver, the horticultural taxonomist at the Arboretum who checked that the nomenclature in the book – it was a job. I didn’t understand how difficult it was because the nomenclature was so bad. But that’s okay. I think most of the plants we could – somehow. That’s the important thing about proper botanical nomenclature, or improper; we know what they were talking about. So that establishes Louisa Farrand Wood, whose garden was also taped by the gardening program on public broadcasting. So, this gets her a place in American gardening, although small. And, her mother, Daisy Farrand – so we now have those Farrands straight. Okay. It’s my understanding, hearing about Beatrix Farrand over the years, because I’ve been involved in gardening, here in the Boston area and with the Garden Club of America, that she, in those days when women had to go to work – and it’s my understanding that she needed to work, as did her aunt Elizabeth – rather – yes Wharton.

AS/EG: Edith?

CE: Edith Wharton, yes. That it was alright for women to design gardens or be sculptresses; that this was an acceptable means of earning a living, and being here at the Arnold Arboretum – hanging around here as a groupie of the Arnold Arboretum – I’ve always heard about Beatrix Farrand and her coming here to Boston to study with Charles Sprague Sargent, which I think was really cool. And her legacy here at the Arboretum, which I think is not here anymore, was to plant the azaleas along the main road here in succession of bloom. But my understanding is her importance in American lore, in American history. She was the first woman to be admitted to the Society of American Landscape Architects, and given that we know how male-dominated the world is then, this was pretty important – and also to establish the importance of landscape design in our culture. I mean Dumbarton Oaks – it is not a question of, you know, “Let’s plant something here, let’s plant something there.” She had a vision for every inch of that space, which Dumbarton Oaks has been able to maintain in spite of having to make changes with libraries and things. And, I think it’s – so many of us don’t realize that you can’t take an outdoor space and just start planning – the design element – and she set the bar for all of us to follow. As a matter of fact, my grandmother was part of this, living in Flushing, New York, and she had probably a better garden than her sister, Daisy Farrand, but she had not married so well. And so, she kind of had to keep it together, and she used to garden – I mean, excuse me – lecture during the depression on gardening, and this is, May Carleton Knapp, and it’s reported that she kept the family in food on gardening lectures. But it was her hope to design gardens as well, because this was – I think lecturing was acceptable, because you’re a given expert. And she could also hopefully design gardens, but that didn’t pan out to be a huge source of income. Today, the tradition is certainly carried on. Radcliffe Seminars started the Institute for Landscape Studies back in the 70s, and it was to educate women in landscape design, and mainly at the time – this is all more Harvard law, lore, than anything else – it was to educate us if we were going to be members of conservation commissions or tree-planting committees. But it taught us that, just like Beatrix did, to put everything down on paper and plan it. It became part of the Arnold Arboretum Landscape Studies program when Radcliffe kind of folded everything up. Anyhow, I mean, Beatrix Farrand’s name in landscape design is – she is sort of the pinnacle, the top. She’s kind of the goddess that we all look up to. I mean, there is no other name that I can think of, other than Frederick Law Olmsted, that you – when you mention landscape design – that you think of.

AS: But, I wonder, from what you’ve heard through family, was it just her – well – a combination of talent and the luck of her connections? That’s certainly the sense that her finding the Blisses –

CE: Yes, I think, she was of the manner born, and she did summer in Mount Desert, and Mount Desert is certainly a well-known summer watering-hole. And I think it’s natural, since they all know one another and they spoke the same language, for her to be trusted, because she understood their needs and their tastes. And I think the same thing would happen – happens today, and in probably – unfortunately too many people have trusted people in banking for the wrong reasons, but in – certainly in interior design, all of this, I would say. I don’t think she took advantage of the situation. It just sort of – it was the sort of thing that happened, people needed help, and they knew her, and so they hired her.

EG: And was the Dumbarton Oaks garden one of her most famous projects – one of the biggest gardens?

CE: It is certainly. That and the Abby Rockefeller Garden in Mount Desert are her signature gardens, and the fact that they are still going today is what I think is the most important thing, because we can see what she thought and see how she dealt with – as far as having to move things to put the library in, they’ve had to do that at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum recently, in order to accommodate modern needs, and the people who come to enjoy these places – I don’t know if you’ve heard of that – they had to take down the carriage house in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s palace on the Fenway in order to put in a visitor’s center. So, it was the same sort of screaming hoo-ha that “you can’t change the original!”

AS/EG: Alright.

CE: But I think both of these women would agree that you have to meet the need today. They are practical people. I’m disappointed that she was so cross about the fact they couldn’t start the school of landscape architecture in Reef Point Gardens that she ripped the gardens up and threw them out, but – You know, I can understand that if she couldn’t have it the way she wanted it, she would do that. So.

EG: But you think, for the most part, her vision and, I don’t know, ideas for the garden have remained pretty much intact at Dumbarton Oaks, aside from the library renovations?

CE: I would assume so. I mean, I’m no expert. I’m a plant person, and I’m historically challenged by lack of memory. But from what I see there, it’s been, as much as any generation of caretakers to have properly – there’s always an interpretation within that current generation about how faithful you’re being, or what should be done. A decision has to be made. But to my eye it looks – it makes sense, and certainly leaving the plans that she did to maintain them, to make the changes, she saw what would happen ahead, and things – I mean, she realized that plants grow and they die, and things happen, including libraries.

AS: She must have had a strong viewpoint. I mean, there’s a reason she has that dragon title.

CE: Oh yes. That’s what we call ladies of my generation today who had gotten old enough to become dragons. It’s a sign of achievement. So, I think she must have been a strong force in order to work in the first place, and to work in a man’s world, and to do the planning, and to oversee things. It’s my understanding with planning that she would be out there personally with sticks in the ground too, because sometimes things – I do know myself – things change when your – you plan it on paper but when you get there, it doesn’t work, so you have to rearrange. And she’d be out there in the field going for it, and she looks in her pictures to be a very persistent person, and strong-willed. So.

AS: I think that, if my understanding is correct, she had an idea at that point that she wasn’t really designing a socialite’s garden, but she was also designing a garden that would eventually become part of a research center.

CE: With the Blisses?

AS: Yes.

CE: Oh well, good for her! Maybe her dream did come through – of having a legacy; a living legacy is what she’d hope for at Reef Point Gardens. That’s a very cheery thought because it does persist today, and I don’t know how Dumbarton Oaks must have had to totally replant some areas because things just get out of scale and huge, and that’s perfectly okay in a garden to take something out and redo it. It’s not sacred; it’s alright to kill plants. No I’m serious – people think that you have to save every living thing. So, I would imagine they’ve had to replant things. And then somebody – I have pictures of the swimming pool, or of the –

AS: Oh, the pebble garden.

CE: The pebble garden.

AS: Which was quite different, I think, from its original concept.

CE: But it has happened. I went through a great deal of effort this morning to pull out my slides that are unfiled that I took in 1997. They are much better than my 1987 slides at Dumbarton Oaks. But I do remember the thing about Dumbarton Oaks that just blew my doors off – was the lawn that steps down in stairs and that it looks – the grade is dropping – but if you are standing up in the house, you don’t realize that there’re steps there, and it’s just absolutely brilliant, because it always is one flowing landscape. And I think that was one of my favorite things, as well as, I think, her pleached circle of trees. I can’t –

AS/EG: The Ellipse.

CE: Yes.

AS/EG: It’s beautiful.

CE: Really? Wonderful. I mean, the whole thing is all of these little vignettes all over the place.

AS: And I wonder – we probably should touch on that at some point during the interview – the fact that the gardens draw from such a wide variety of styles and concepts, and what you – the vignettes really sort of are the perfect way to describe it.

CE: Yes, because of gardens, the good gardens I’ve seen are not just one thing, they’re “I have an inspiration; I’m going to do a drawing room here; I’m going to do a sun room over here.” I mean, this is the inside equivalent. I’m going to do something different because I see the space here and design around it. And the good gardens are not just great big flowing things. They have these little things, such as spaces you can enjoy, they literally are rooms that you are in with sides and the ground and the sky as your ceiling, and she must have adopted from a lot of experiences to do that. I realized – I mean, her only other garden I’ve been in that is truly going is the Abby Rockefeller Garden, and she designed that as a room, but it’s a huge room with the perennial garden in the flow of color. It’s magnificent and it’s a totally different thing than Dumbarton Oaks, which has, in my memory, not a whole lot of flowers; it’s plants and plant shapes. The slides I came across this morning of the ‘97 visit – of her use of boxwood. There was one that sort of – pulled together and puffy; it looks sort of like an ice cream sundae with lots of plops of colors, but it’s all in boxwood. There’s a lot of vision there.

AS: Is this the thing that she got, do you think, from her Harvard training, or –?

CE: Well her Harvard training was really Charles Sprague Sargent training because at the time she was here, the Arnold Arboretum was pretty new. It was founded in 1872 and I’m not sure when she was here. But it couldn’t have been, you know, within twenty years, and arboretums, you know, go on forever, and Charles Sprague Sargent lived very close by here, and I imagine it was really plant talk all the time because he was possessed about plants and that’s what she was here for, and to find out how they grew – their forms, their shapes, their flowering periods, their care. And then it was up to her to have this encyclopedic knowledge of, when she was designing a garden, how to use it. And that was the sad thing about losing Reef Point Gardens because that was, sort of, her encyclopedia there of plants. And she had to make the adjustment too of different zones and climates, because she didn’t work out in Berkeley. Her husband, Max, was there. And certainly the climate at Dumbarton Oaks is way different than Boston and Maine. And we sometimes think you can just take anything and move these plants around, and they die, and that’s very disappointing. So. She was very versatile, for sure.

EG: And that love of plants must have also prompted her to the Plant Book that was eventually published.

CE: That is true, I’m sure; I didn’t bring that along. Yes. This is – I also brought along just because it would be nice to have it recorded – there’s a history of Cornell which writes about Livingston Farrand in there. So, he’s – and I had still – I thought I had gotten rid of all my Farrand stuff, but I see there is an article I cut out on Farrand gardens in Connecticut. But I haven’t researched them yet. There are two new books out on Beatrix Farrand: the one by Judith Tankard, which has been published, and there’s another one coming out in the fall by Carmen Pearson, “P-E-A-R-S-O-N”, and she, Carmen, did her research – I mean, I know Judith must have done her research here at the Arboretum too. But these will add to – the other thing I really should mention because I think it’s kind of like the six degrees of separation: Beatrix Farrand was very instrumental within the Garden Club of America. She was a member of the Mount Desert Garden Club, which is a member of the Garden Club of American, and in her day, Beatrix Farrand was awarded the Achievement Medal of the Garden Club of America, and then four years ago, I received the Achievement Medal, which – that kind of blew my doors off to be, you know, walking in the same pathway as she did, with far less achievements than she had or her legacy that she left behind. She did a lot of writing for the Garden Club of America, in the bulletins, which are – there’re bound copies of the bulletins here. I don’t know if they’re at Dumbarton Oaks or not. It might be good to see what there is of the Garden Club of America at Dumbarton Oaks. It’s an institution of women gardeners that was founded about 1913. So, it kind of follows in the same line of what women could do at the time. In this instance, they met in living rooms and organized gardening and organized money and proceeded to grow. But she did a lot of writing for the Garden Club of America in their bulletins. So, I think that association is useful to get in there too. Not necessarily my medal, but it just shows you that life is connected.

AS/EG: Yes.

CE: Let’s see now, what else? I do know that – and you probably have them – Princeton University has published articles about her from time to time because of her work on the campus there. And I think she was the one who felt that you didn’t lay out the paths like in the quad over there in Cambridge, but you find out where the students walk, and then you put the paths down. And she did some wonderful wall plantings at Princeton. The climate down there, I hate to say it, is a little bit more benign. And she did – she planted magnolia virgin – the Southern magnolia, magnolia grandiflora against – and they’re quite famous. I did get one of those trees a few years ago and I said I was going to do a Beatrix Farrand memorial at our new place, but the plant died. They do better in Princeton. And I’m trying to think what other campus job she did. She did work at Yale too. I’ve only been to the Yale campus once, and I think I’ve been to the Princeton campus – lots more the Harvard. So, let’s see. What else can we eke out?

AS: Well, speaking of connections, why don’t we talk about a little bit about what brought you to Dumbarton Oaks in ’87?

CE: In ’85 I first came to Dumbarton Oaks because I was down with my husband and we were kind of touristing, and because there was a garden – I had to go there. And then I came back in 1997. I was Chairman of the Garden History and Design Committee of the Gardener Club of America, and we were having our meetings in Georgetown, and this was natural to meet there and tour the gardens. That’s when I took the good pictures on an overcast day, and it was amazing to, you know, to form your appearance. I mean – these are over a period of 24 years – to go back and see something that sort of stays the same. It doesn’t change. It’s there as a resource. It’s wonderful that it is part of Harvard, but, it’s distinctly a ship on its own bottom, right? How did you all end up there, to digress?

AS: Well, I was a Classics major as an undergrad, and I specialized in reception studies when I was there, and so I guess I had sort of the intellectual connection, or soft spot for Byzantine studies, which sort of started out as the first Classics reception studies. And they needed someone to come down and work on this project, so I said that I would do it for the summer, and they said, well you know, it might be good to get another person, and I said I know a pre-Columbian archaeologist that was an archaeology major. And at the same time some people from the pre-Columbian department there were emailing about and recommending her for the same position. So.

CE: Oh wonderful!

EG: It was sort of good timing on everybody’s part.

CE: Because there is certainly a wonderful collection, as I remember, of pre-Columbian. How is the portrait of Beatrix Farrand doing?

AS/EG: Is it up in the main house?

AS/EG: Yes.

CE: It’s the one that Louisa Farrand Wood donated.

AS: I think it’s well respected. I mean, there’s been a greater effort, as you can tell from projects like this, to maintain a collection related to the individuals who made Dumbarton Oaks come to be, and obviously Beatrix is a huge figure there. I think that there’s a lot of respect among people there for her legacy and a real sorrow that there aren’t more objects. Everything that we do have seems precious because there’s not a lot.

CE: Yes. I’m hoping that with the libraries we’ll all be coming to – that was when I gave the stuff to Garland Farms and the Beatrix Farrand Society up there – the idea that that one day it is going to all be scanned and be online and be available and be part of a bigger collection. I mean, I think it’s within the realm of possibility. Certainly. Is the Dumbarton Oaks library part of the Harvard collection that’s going to be scanned by Google?

AS: I would assume so because there’s a big effort to have everything incorporated into the HOLLIS catalogue.

CE: Yes.

AS: And to really change over even the categories – the cataloguing system in the Dumbarton Oaks library – because originally it was different than the Harvard system. So, I would suspect so. But, there also are – you know, there’s a geographical separation.

CE: Yes, I know, yes sentinels become sentimental, yes.

AS: We understand that you also visited for some of the symposia that took place, is that correct?

CE: I think, that the memory was of me there; the reason I was called was because we were down there with the Garden History and Design Committee of the GCA, and I had more of a voice at that time that could be heard, and I made a distinct jumping-up-and-down to get “Farrand” pronounced correctly. So.

EG: We talked to many scholars who have some interesting pronunciations still.

CE: We used to have a director of the Horticultural Society here. He gave out the awards every year at the flower show, and he would say “The Beatrix Farrand Bowl,” I mean “Farrand Bowl”, and then he would talk about the “Ikebana Society,” and that would, believe me – because it’s “Ikebana.” It’s not “Ikebana.” And the last one he would say was: it was the “Bonsai Study Group.” Now, if we’re into pronunciations, it’s “Bone-sai.” Have you gotten into that? Well “Bonsai” is what the Japanese fighter pilots used to say in the Second World War when they did their suicide missions, was “Bonsai”, and then they would fly their planes into our carriers, and the Japanese word “Bonsai” is literally pronounced “B-O-N-E-S-I-G-H.” So anyhow, now we have taken care of all my nudgy pronunciations. And you will go forth saying “Bonsai”…

AS/EG: Oh yes.

CE: …and people will say, what are you talking about?

AS: Is there a relationship between the Garden Club of America and Dumbarton Oaks? I mean I know –

CE: Wait! Yes, thank you. I came across – those slides are at home – a picture of a – it won a Founders Fund for the woodland garden, there’s a woodland walk and – that was established at Dumbarton Oaks. They have an award every year to give money to a project wherever, and it was at Dumbarton Oaks, and I’m sure there’re other associations that you will find in the library. I don’t know if Mrs. Bliss was a member of a Garden Club of America club or not, but I’m sure that there’s an association. So, you can find that.

AS/EG: Oh yes.

EG: Is there sort of relationship between the Arnold Arboretum and Dumbarton Oaks? I mean, both being associated with Harvard?

CE: That is a very good question. I am sure that, I don’t know what the staff and the horticultural or maintainer staff at Dumbarton Oaks would be. I would assume that they wouldn’t come up here to look at plants but go online, and do – have you visited the Arnold Arboretum website?

AS/EG: Yes.

CE: And you’ve mastered the HOLLIS system?

AS/EG: Eventually.

CE: Eventually, yes. That’s – because I’m trying to see the holdings here, which I will in a minute. But, the Garden Club of America bulletins, which I could not find through the HOLLIS system. I think I found the GCA bulletins in the School of Design.

EG: It’s sort of like searching for a needle in a hay stack.

CE: Yes it is, it is.

AS: I wonder if maybe we could wrap up by – one of, I think, the ideas of doing a project like this is to try to find from authoritative sources a sense of not just of details of the past and personalities, but, you know, also of its relevance, I think, to the future. And so, with that in mind, I wonder if you see a sense of having known, or known of Beatrix Farrand in more detail, a sense of her legacy to Dumbarton Oaks and what it should be. You know, should there be more of a horticultural – of course there’s garden studies and landscape studies there, but I just wonder, knowing what you do of her, what you thought her legacy ought to be there.

CE: Well, I think, her legacy certainly is education, as her wish for Reef Point gardens, and I think Dumbarton Oaks’s legacy – I mean, they’re into education too, since they’re having a living laboratory there of most of the landscape design, and horticulture, and plants, it would point to the future. And it is a laboratory, because things are going to have to be replaced and changed and renewed, and I trust it’s all being documented visually, which is important. My association with the Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian was trying to keep a visual record of gardens, which are so transitory, and that’s one of the many neat things about Dumbarton Oaks that you don’t have to just look at pictures; you can see the real thing. And so, I think it’s really important to keep that in mind for the future, and probably – it’s harder to keep gardens going, than it is buildings. You can – I mean, buildings, you can always fake it, but it’s very hard to fake a plant. So does that make sense?

AS/EG: Yes

CE: Good!

AS: Well, thank you very much.

EG: Yes, thank you for talking with us.

CE: Well, thank you!