Thursday July 12, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- The drag on came from the For bidden City -- the imperial palace in the Ming and Qing dynasties, in the middle of Beijing. He coils over a stone slab only the emperor would have been carried across.

He is sunning himself now at Naumkeag, the Stockbridge es tate, where he guards the steps in the Chinese Garden beside nine Ginko trees. Mabel Choate found him on a trip to China a half-centuryago, said Jacqueline Connell, a landscape historian with the Trustees of Reservations. Around the Chinese garden, blue-tiled roofs peak like pagodas. The original ceramic tiles, Connell said, came from the same company that made the tiles for the Summer Palace.

Walking through the gardens around the Choate family's Gilded Age "cottage" is a trip across continents.

Joseph and Caroline Choate bought the land and began the house and gardens in 1885. In the 1920s their daughter, Mabel, turned the gardens into art.

As president of the Lenox Garden Club, she met Fletcher Steele, a pioneer in modern landscape design -- and a Williams College alum. Over the next 30 years, they worked in partnership over the Naumkeag grounds.

Their shared pleasure shows clearly still in the whimsy and care they put into these walkways and waterways. The gardens gave Mabel a place to play with color, style and fragrance. And they gave Steele a place to create and design with some confidence that what he made would last.

He knew, Connell said, that his creations were transitory. When he, too, traveled to the land of the Forbidden City, he wrote: "After seeing almost everything, from Newport mansions to Cape Cod cottages, torn down merely to try something else, it is soothing to see a timeless idea in China."

An artist with a canvas 8 acres wide needs substantial resources to make and keep his work. And an artist who works with materials that keep growing knows that his designs will change and fade unless someone cares for them constantly. So Naumkeag may have given him freedom to experiment.

In the gardens here, he gathered ideas from many parts of the world. The parterre (a garden of low, clipped hedges edged in gravel paths) is in spired by Persian rugs and laid out in four parts -- four is a sacred number in Islam, Connell said. In Mabel Choate's day, 40 kinds of fuchsia would have bloomed here, and "it would have been humming with hummingbirds."

Around the edges, she added, piers from Boston Harbor carved and painted like Gon dola poles would have reminded Choate's guests of Venice. Many places in the gardens would bring back intense memories, she said, for guests who had traveled, and for Mabel -- like a scrapbook in living flowers.

The blend of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern continues in Steele's best-known work. A water channel runs down the cement stairs between white birches, and the water pools below a series of blue disks, setting the sun dancing in them. The geometry comes out of the Renaissance. The water stair is an Islamic design from the Generalife gardens of the Alhambra, the palace of the Nasrid sultans in the last Islamic city-state in Spain.

In Mabel Choate's gardens, the paths around the winter-hardy roses swirl like Chinese clouds, and the cocoa shells mulching the beds used to smell of hot chocolate on rainy days, Connell said. But one central principle comes from close to home. The rippling lines through out the gardens follow the ridges of the Berkshire hills.

In fact, Naumkeag is the name of the nation of people who once lived in what is now Salem, where Joseph Choate was born. The word itself means "fishing place," according to Salem historical documents.

Maybe Mabel Choate knew that when she chose a fountain of twined marble dolphins to play near her rose garden. But she took the dolphins out of her fountain later, Connell said, so that they would not fall on any grandchildren splashing in the basin on a hot day. Naumkeag is a designed place -- and people lived here.

Joseph Choate liked the way his place developed from one thing and another, Connell said.

"Growth of this sort has a life of its own," he wrote, that never comes when a place is planned all of a piece. "I want all my places to seem the houses of children and lovers ... comfortable and slightly mysterious by day, and delirious in the moonlight."



What: Naumkeag, house and gardens of the Choate family

Where: 5 Prospect Hill Road (follow signs from Main Street), Stockbridge

When: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 15; tours Thursdays through Aug. 30; yoga in the gardens on Tuesdays weekly at noon.

Admission: $15 for adults; free for children 12 and under

Information: (413) 298-3239, www.thetrustees.org