STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. — Nestled atop a precipitous hill, the Berkshire Cottage known as Naumkeag is as unique as its name would suggest.
Renowned for its Fletcher Steele designed gardens, the estate, built as the Gilded Age summer home of lawyer and diplomat Joseph Hodges Choate and his wife, Caroline Dutcher Sterling Choate, survives as one of the last "intact" Berkshire Cottages under the care of the The Trustees of Reservations.
Joseph Choate was an accomplished lawyer, who rose to fame as the lead prosecutor of "Boss" Tweed and his Tammany Hall conspirators. One of the first corporate lawyers, he successfully argued against the income tax in front of the Supreme Court in 1895, causing its repeal for some 20 years. In 1899, he was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom by President William McKinley.
Caroline Choate was not a lady of leisure by any means. She was an artist before marrying and was a staunch women's education activist. She helped found the Brearley School, a prep school for girls in Manhatten in the 1880s, and a few short years later helped found Barnard College. She would pass on many of these qualities to her daughter, Mabel, whom she would leave Naumkeag to in 1929. Mabel, a world traveler, would spend 30 years collaborating with Steele on the estate's lush gardens (the subject of a recent renovation). • • •
The Choate family began traveling to the Berkshires to summer with friends in 1874. The family often took the train up from New York City and stayed with Joseph Choate's partners, Charles Southmayd, who owned Southmayd Farm, and Charles Butler, who owned Linwood, now home to the Norman Rockwell Museum. The Choates purchased Naumkeag's 49 acres, where they often enjoyed afternoon picnics with their five children while visiting Southmayd and Lincourt, from fellow lawyer Daniel Dudley Field in 1884. Both estates can be seen from Naumkeag's perch on Prospect Hill.
My travels took me to Naumkeag on a sunny weekday afternoon, where I explored a few of the gardens — Top Lawn, the Afternoon Garden, The Water Runnel and the famous Blue Steps — before joining a tour of the 44-room summer cottage.
We entered the home's foyer, where we were greeted by a Norman Manor-style room with a large fireplace and intricately carved dark oak wood walls. The foyer and an adjoining hall, including a wall covered by a 16th-century Flemish tapestry, were built to evoke the feeling of being in a medieval hall. The foyer seems right at home in this eclectic cottage, which includes two turrets as part of its design.
Our tour guide, Julie Gorman, reminded us that Naumkeag, unlike the other cottages, was built to be lived in, not to entertain, so it lacks several common features, such as a ballroom. She also noted the color on some of the walls is known as "Pompeii Red." A color, she says, that became "all the rage" amongst the Gilded Age crowd, following the discovery of Pompeii.
While the Choates designed the home to be functional, with the rooms being smaller than those of most country estates, they were still known to entertain. When not entertaining in the garden, guests were received in the formal parlor, which today is a filled with Caroline's Victorian furniture and treasures from Mabel's travels. The dining room, although small in size, still has a table that can seat up to 20.
"Unlike other dining rooms, this one lacks a chandelier," Gorman said. "That's because the ceiling is covered in tin leaf. The sunset reflects off the ceiling and casts a beautiful pink glow across the room. What better light to be seen in than one with a beautiful pink filter?"
We end our tour in the kitchen, where the Frigidaire Mabel installed still reigns supreme near an old call box that alerted the servants to the family's needs. Before leaving, I spent some more time in gardens, visiting the Evergreen Garden with its large sunken fountain and the Chinese Garden, where I peered out of the Moon Gate.
"It's quite a hidden gem," Brian Cruey, general manager of Naumkeag, said. "It's spectacular and has one of the best views. The great thing about it is, you don't have to be a garden person or into historical homes to appreciate it. You can just come, sit on the porch and listen to music while the sun sets."
The "Naumkeag at Night" music series, which features music on the lawn on Thursday evenings, kicks off on June 23, from 5 to 8 p.m., with the bluegrass band The Hayrollers. A cash bar is available. Admission is $5 for members, $10 for nonmembers.
IF YOU GO ...
Naumkeag: A Berkshire Cottage and its gardens, is owned and operated by The Trustees of Reservations. Located at 5 Prospect Hill in Stockridge, Mass., it is a National Historic Landmark with significance for the designed landscape created by Fletcher Steele.
Open: Weekends only: April through Memorial Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; then daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Tours: Self-guided: Allow an hour to view the gardens, two hours to view the house and gardens. House tours are about 45 minutes. Fees for nonmembers may apply.
Admission: Free for Trustees members. House and gardens for nonmembers are $15 for adults; children up to age 12 are free.
More information: Call 413-298-3239 or visit http://www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/berkshires/naumkeag.html
Jennifer Huberdeau, the Berkshire Eagle's online editor, is exploring the Berkshire Cottages, one by one this summer. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.