Looming from Prospect Hill over a picture-postcard landscape with one of the best views in town, the Gilded Age-era "cottage" known as Naumkeag holds pride of place as one of the community's most-treasured sites.

The National Historic Landmark that's undergoing extensive property restoration was built in 1886 as a 44-room, three-season country estate designed by prominent architect Stanford White for well-known attorney Joseph Choate, later the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and his wife, Caroline Sterling Choate. It cost $100,000 at the time -- about $2.5 million in today's dollars.

Now, thanks to an anonymous benefactor's $1 million challenge grant being matched through fundraising by The Trustees of Reservations, which owns the property, an ambitious landscaping project to spruce up the gardens is under way at a cost of $2.

Naumkeag in Stockbridge was built in 1886 as a 44-room, three-season country estate.
Naumkeag in Stockbridge was built in 1886 as a 44-room, three-season country estate. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
8 million. Separately, a new $500,000 roof for the mansion is under construction.

The goal is to restore the shine and splendor of the original gardens created by noted landscape designer Fletcher Steele, working with Mabel Choate, the ambassador's daughter who inherited the property in 1929 and owned it until she bequeathed it to the trustees before her death in 1958.

The project is designed to reverse the ravages of time, including damage from winter weather, the aging of original plantings, and obscured views caused by unhealthy and overgrown trees.

At least 200 damaged or overgrown birches and other trees are being removed, to be replaced by at least 250 trees, including 14-foot high plantings, as the five-phase beautification project aims for a spring 2016 completion target.

"Some viewscapes have been opened up throughout the property," project manager Mark Wilson said during a walkthrough this past week. "Trees had grown in and blocked views. There will be views opened up that have not been seen for many years.

Wilson called the large-scale project "beyond the scope of anything we've done at Naumkeag before. We're looking to work with local contractors. We want to make sure the local community is as involved as possible."

To restore the landscape so it replicates what they would have seen from the 1920s to the 1950s, "We're going by the records, but we're also thinking and trying to feel like Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele," he added.

A landscape firm to handle the installations is about to be chosen. Plans have been completed by landscape designer Cindy Brockway, the trustees' director of cultural resources and a specialist in restoring and creating gardens.

The project includes an update of Steele's famed and often-photographed Blue Steps, as well as the Peony Terrace, Chinese Temple, and Evergreen Garden. In all, there are 16 projects to rebuild or reproduce fountains, water systems, masonry, decorative arts and original plantings.

A landscaper continues work on the gardens restoration. Naumkeag was built in 1886 for $100,000.
A landscaper continues work on the gardens restoration. Naumkeag was built in 1886 for $100,000. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

"After more than 50 years, the gardens need a refresh and a rejuvenation of the intricate details of scale, furnishings and plantings that made Naumkeag a work of fine art," Brockway stated. "By the end of the project, few landscapes in the country will have seen such a detailed restoration."

Wilson, a full-time trustees staffer based in Stockbridge, said that nearly $400,000 has been raised so far to match an anonymous $1 million donation by Sept. 30.

Naumkeag has applied for $250,000 in state funding through a cultural facilities grant to complete a re-shingling of the mansion according to 1886 specifications. A gala fundraiser is scheduled at the property on July 20.

The $2.8 million renovation to Naumkeag’s gardens and landscape includes restoring the Blue Steps to their original condition.
The $2.8 million renovation to Naumkeag’s gardens and landscape includes restoring the Blue Steps to their original condition. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

There's a potential of $35,000 more if Stockbridge Town Meeting voters approve Community Preservation Act funding at their annual meeting in May.

So far, designs have been completed to replace plantings according to hundreds of plans, vintage photos, letters, notes and documents left by Steele and Choate, with special attention to restoring the Linden Allée, a pathway modeled after the wooded walks of Germany.

"By rejuvenating the gardens, we're looking to create greater interest in Naumkeag," Wilson acknowledged, pointing out that the site, along with the Mission House and gardens down below, is among the few among the 700 designed by Steele that are still open to the public. 

"By rebuilding and putting back plant material that had been lost, we just need to refresh [the design] since the bones and the framework of the garden are good," said Wilson. Wilson also serves as statewide curator and western regional cultural resources manager for the Boston-based Trustees organization.

The gardens, completed after 30 years of collaboration between Steele and Mabel Choate, are considered a leading example of early American-modern landscape architecture.

According to the Library of American Landscape History, Naumkeag's gardens represent "a playground for the imagination which boasts some of the most vibrant, original and luminous gardens on the North American continent."

"We take our responsibility as caretakers of these magnificent National Historic Landmarks very seriously," Barbara Erickson, president of The Trustees of Reservations, said. "The iconic gardens at Naumkeag are one of only a few Fletcher Steele-designed gardens viewable to the public and we want people to be able to experience them in their full and original brilliance.

"Mabel Choate chose to bequeath her family home to the trustees knowing it would be lovingly maintained and shared with generations to come," she added. "It is part of our mission and true passion to ensure their exemplary care for everyone, forever."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

About Naumkeag

Location: 5 Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge.

Origins: Built in 1886 for $100,000 (now $2.5 million), it was named for the term used by native Americans to describe the Salem area where they lived and where Joseph Choate grew up. It was the three-season country home for the Choate family until 1958.

The property: The shingled mansion includes traditional European elements -- brick and stone towers, two-tone brick patterns and wrought-iron architectural details. Interior decorations: Elegant cherry, oak and mahogany paneling, ornate plaster, decorative flooring, brass and silver hardware, and a three-story hand-carved oak staircase. Original late 19th century furnishings, arts and antiques collected from around the world by the Choate family. Exterior features: Flower gardens, a linden walk, an orchard and pastures.

Ownership: Trustees of Reservations, the Boston-based nonprofit that tends 103 properties statewide. Naumkeag is one of the few remaining intact historic house museums in Massachusetts.

Restoration project: $2.8 million (gardens, landscape); $500,000 (roofing).

Visitation: The 48-acre property, including the mansion, eight acres of gardens as well as pastures hosting cattle in the summer, will open for its traditional season from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. About 12,000 visitors tour the site each year.

Financing: The property derives its operating costs in equal thirds -- revenues from admission fees; a 4 percent annual draw from interest on the $3 million endowment from Mabel Choate's original $900,000 bequest, and membership combined with annual support.

Information: (413) 298-3239. On the Web: http://tinyurl.com/naumkeag

Source: The Trustees of Reservations