If you thought, as I did, that a couple of years back we (my sister and I) had finished sorting and purging the files from my Mother’s capacious and apparently infinite file cabinets back at the Orchard, you would be wrong, as I was. Several of the files in question had merely decamped to my sister’s house in Maine, “to be sorted later”. That later was last weekend. While winter behaved somewhat wintrily outside, we sat by our living room fire and went through files upon files containing my mother’s correspondence, every last letter saved, every copy of her letters saved as well.
It was after many hours of skimming and consigning to the flames those pounds of paper, heavy weight typing paper as well as feathery onionskin airmail paper, that we were rewarded with a file labeled “Olmsted.”
We all know that in life there are many things we cannot change. If you’ve ever had children or been in a relationship, even with a colony of bees, sooner or later you accept that you cannot change others. If you live in the world, you know that no amount of wishing and letter writing, no amount of gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts can alter the outcome of recent elections.
My mother knew this as well as anyone. But there were things she could change, there were solecisms she could repair, and there were misspellings she could correct. Again and again.
My mother’s Olmsted file contained copies of at least twenty letters she had written over the years in her effort to assure the name of America’s greatest landscape architect its correct orthography. The file also included the original of the document containing the incorrect spelling, and the tragically few acknowledgments or thanks she received for her efforts.
Here are selections from the collected misspellings of Frederick Law Olmsted. FLO, by John Singer Sargent. From Wiki
1. An undated flyer from The Turpin Bannister Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, announcing their fall tours. A highlight of one was to be “lectures by two of the editors of the Olmstead Papers (sic) on Dowling and Olmstead (sic) as fathers of the American tradition in landscape architecture.”
2. 1980. An invitation from Senator Oliver Ames to a reception at his home “Langwater” in North Easton, Ma. In a paragraph describing historic Easton, we read of “the landscaping of Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).”
3. October 1981. A mailing from the Membership Director of The Trustees of Reservations, in which she referred to “a fall Olmstead (sic) tour”, and then announcing her intention to “research the Olmstead (sic) society.”
4. February 1983. The Hingham Journal. The first question in their “Hingham Quiz” was: “Who designed the period garden at the Old Ordinary?”. The answer given was Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).
5. March 1983. Newsletter from the Boston Society of Architects, a notice for an exhibit at MIT’s Graduate Center of Design about Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead” (sic). His name is also misspelled in the listing for lectures.
6. 1984. On page 502 of Samuel Elliot Morrison’s The Oxford History of the American People, the name is rendered as Olmstead (sic).
7. 1987. A flyer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art advertising their inshore cruise, “New England Collections.” It describes the carriage paths in Acadia National Park on MDI as “designed by Frederick Law Olmstead” (sic)
8. 1988. An engraved invitation from the Trustees of Reservations to the annual dinner of the 1891 Society, to be held at Castle Hill, in Ipswich. ….the gardens designed by the Olmstead Brothers (sic).
9. 1989. The Most Beautiful House in the World, by Witold Rybczynski. On page 109 Olmsted is correctly spelled once, but then in the next paragraph, it is given the usual misspelling.
10. January 1990. Flyer from The Old South Meeting House, Boston, advertising a lecture series. On January 18th the lecture was “Frederick Law Olmstead (sic) and the Emerald Necklace”.
11. March 1990. In the Society of Architectural Historians Journal, a list of winners of the Alice David Hitchcock Book Award. The award in 1974 was given to Laura Wood Roper for FLO, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).
12. May 1993. Article in The Boston Globe about the town of Easton, Ma.
13. February 1994. Biltmore Estate Catalogue. The pictures are elegant but the spelling is, again, wrong. Describing the “Olmstead (sic) Garden”, we read ..”Frederick Law Olmstead (sic), the noted designer of New York’s Central Park…”
14. October 1997. A brochure for the Newport Art Association about Central Park misspelled Olmsted’s name. Monique kindly suggested this might be a typographical error, as “he is too well known and recognized not to have his name correctly spelled.”
For this she received a grateful letter from the director of the Newport Art Museum.
15. October 1997. The Hingham Journal. In an otherwise fine article about the Trustees of the Reservations’ properties, the name of the “greatest American landscape architect” was, again, misspelled.
16. January 1998. The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Ma. Monique noted “You are not the first to make this mistake, but I was unhappy to see it in the Patriot Ledger which I admire and read daily.”
17. Winter 1998. The New England Hosta Society “Hosta News”. A member’s hosta garden in Chestnut Hill was described as having been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (sic).
In the Spring Hosta Newsletter, thanks were given to an “alert member” for pointing out the egregious error.
18. May 1998. Shockingly, in the Style section of The New York Times, in a paragraph nestled amid Bill Cunningham’s iconic photos of ladies in pastel suits and flowery hats, was this unfortunate reference: “The annual Frederick Law Olmstead (sic) Awards Luncheon…”
19. March 1999. In The New York Times, an article about Vanderbilt’s library at Biltmore, North Carolina. Monique clearly was more than usually disturbed by this. She wrote: “Please, please, please……not in the New York Times……..Banish the “a”, it belongs in homestead, not in Olmsted.”
I am happy to report that Monique received a handwritten thank you from the writer, Peter Applebome, for spotting the error.
20. July 1999. The Boston Globe. In an article about “Eastholm”, the summer home of Richard and Annie Hoe in Seal Harbor, Maine, the beautiful but now overgrown gardens were said to have been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (sic). Within two days of the article’s publication my mother sent off a correction.
Why did she stop? Is it possible that after the turn of the century the print media consistently spelled Olmsted correctly?
Or did my mother decide that she had done all that was possible to remedy human error in this instance? What happened to her sense of righteous indignation?
When I see my mother now, in the twenty-first century, and she asks me who I am and cheerfully points out the window at the skirts (sic) that are coming inside, then sighs and says, “I saw them, they had everything there. It worked out, it worked out nicely,” I miss the mother who valiantly strove to give Olmsted the correct spelling of his name in the last century.