Ultimately, the gardens at Naumkeag are testament to unique vision, fixed commitment, and steadfast attention to detail.
A National Historic Landmark on Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge, Naumkeag was built between 1884 and 1886. When the house was completed, Joseph Hodges and Caroline Sterling Choate turned their attention outside to their 46 acres. Landscape architect Nathan Barrett worked four years, from 1886-90, creating the gardens.
Usually the gardens surrounding Gilded Age Cottages were the serious imposition of art on nature; canvases intended for viewing from window and walkway. Not so the current gardens at Naumkeag.
Mabel Choate inherited the property from her parents in 1929. The Barrett gardens were 40 years old when Choate hired landscape architect Fletcher Steele to rejuvenate, and in some cases redesign, the gardens. They worked together on the project for the next 30 years. Unlike earlier Cottage gardens, Steele’s gardens are the domestication of nature: the civilizing of that which was wild for the purpose of comfort and enjoyment.
In February 1934, five years after being hired by Choate, Steele wrote an article in the Decorator’s Digest. He captured the heart of the domesticated garden designed for use: "There are special comforts built in far from the kitchen. A small copper-lined cabinet will hold an electric hot water heater, a tea pot, cups, plates, boxes of crackers, sugar, napkins and spoons. Nearby will be a wall fountain in which to swish the tea cups and get fresh water."
The domesticity is clear; these are gardens meant to invite you in and urge you to stay. In the article, Steele uses the phrase "made like an outdoor room." He had the unique vision of the outdoor room 75 years before creating such spaces became a commonplace.
Naumkeag’s gardens are places to entertain, and meant to be entertaining in themselves. Choate and Steele worked in apparent harmony of intention and dedication. Together they splashed bright colors on the Blue Steps and placed Gondola poles in the Afternoon Garden.
Steele asked, "Who said a garden must be sober?" Choate asked, "Why can’t a garden be fun?"
Finally both landscape architect and owner had an unwavering attention to detail. In August 1941, Steele wrote instructions to the workmen: no detail was too small; including what to do with the rubble.
"When the new piece of wall is finished, except for the coping, all small stone should be piled where it can be used to patch up the old wall."
Once the private property of the rich, today, thanks to The Trustees of Reservations, everyone can enjoy Naumkeag. However, there is more to it than throwing open the doors and watering the plants. Without proper attention to the architect’s design or the owner’s desire, plants and trees have grown where not wanted and others have died.
Steele restored the gardens when Barrett’s work was 40 years old. Now, half a century after Steele laid down his spade, the gardens need restoration once again. The cost is estimated at $2.8 million. An anonymous gift of $1 million allowed work to begin earlier this year and will allow the completion of the restoration of the Blue Steps just in time for the 75th anniversary of their installation.
Earlier work was done on the Afternoon Garden and the Chinese Garden, but there still will be work to do. Work on other gardens such as the Blue Steps and Lincoln Walk will be completed this summer. The Trustee’s pamphlet "Help Us Restore" lists 10 garden areas: Blue Steps, cutting garden, Linden Walk, South lawn, tennis court and pavilion, Afternoon Garden, Chinese Temple Garden, Rose Garden, the great seat and view, and the Peony Terraces.
There will be a celebration in the gardens this summer and in keeping with Mabel Choate’s wishes, it will be fun.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.