Naumkeag displays garden restoration in Stockbridge


STOCKBRIDGE -- Like a living landscape painting, the gardens of Naumkeag seem so perfect in color, shape and perspective that the moving figures of visitors look like a portion of the painting come to life.

Seen from the original Chinese garden, where a whisper of a maze bound by gondola masts is presided over by Diana, the landscape stretches east in ever larger, less controlled segments of garden.

Mounds of green seem undulating. A pagoda sheltering a limestone baptismal fount overlooks the entry to a long alley of linden. The alley telescopes the view to the composition’s infinity: Monument Mountain.

"The mountain was the focus of the gardens," said Mark Wilson, curator of collections and West Region cultural resource specialist for The Trustees of Reservations at Stockbridge. "But nobody knew that any more, the gardens had become so overgrown."

"We took out hundreds of trees," Wilson said. "We went back to the original documents. Many of the plants were still here, but they were dying out or getting shaded out."

Nearly a half century after the house was built, the gardens were started. Completed in 1886, Naumkeag originally was the country estate of New York City lawyer Joseph Hodges Choate. It perches on 46 acres above Stockbridge, with lovely views of Monument Mountain and a working farm below. The shakes and shingles "cottage" was adorned in Gilded Age colors of blue, red and gold. Designed by Stanford White, a principal in McKim, Mead and White, the leading architectural firm of the age, the house is graced with various patios giving restful views of the countryside.

In fact, as spectacular as the house and gardens are, the views make the site. And it was the presence of Monument Mountain that Choate’s daughter Mabel chose as the focal point of her garden design. She also sought comfort and places to enjoy the views. Her parents’ gardens were full of Victorian posies and there was no place to sit.

So upon her inheritance of Naumkeag in 1925, she hired the premier landscape designer Fletcher Steele and asked him to create a place to sit.

He did that and more.

An open air room was Steele’s response to Choate’s request. The Afternoon Garden is an outdoor room that was a first for its time and place. Inspiration from Choate’s travels to various countries, and Steele combined her ideas into the amazing space. And, yes, beautifully emblemed iron benches line the space, giving plenty of places to sit.

Untouched since the Choates bought the property in 1884, a large oak tree shades the lawn. It spread out in such an enchanting fashion that the family imagined picnicking under it and they went ahead and bought the property. That tree still stands.

However, time and decay ravaged all this imaginative work until recently.

"We had the skills. We had the documents," Wilson said. "But money was always a problem."

The statewide nonprofit Trustees of Reservations manages nearly 20 historic house sites, almost a dozen stately gardens and various waterfalls, gorges, woodlands, working landscapes, historical industrial sites, literary sites and American Indian sites. The Trustees and the Boston Natural Areas Network have partnered and now administer BNAS’s trailways and pathways.

Last year, the money problem was solved. An anonymous donor gave $1 million to the Trustees for the expressed purpose of renovating Naumkeag’s gardens. The donation came with a timeline. The donor wanted to see results within one year. The donor also wanted the Trustees to raise a matching sum of money.

"We’re almost there," Wilson said. "We’re four months from the finish line, and we’ve renovated the gondola poles, the water features. We’ve established a management plan for storms and droughts."

Taking more than 30 years to create, the Naumkeag garden plan is still undergoing renovation. Everywhere one walks, there is water, spewing, trickling and simply running like a mountain ril. The irrigation system disguised as an artistic feature is fed by a new well and cistern, pumping more than 5,000 gallons a day. The site’s aquatics were an expensive and necessary aspect of renovation.

By 2016, Wilson expects Naumkeag to be fully restored and the maintenance program to be in effect. A 20-foot-wide open swath behind the alley of linden will keep the trees from overgrowing into other foliage. Some varieties of other species can grow for 50 years before needing replacement. A group of Japanese maples is easy to replant when the time comes.

Despite the progress, however, the matching part of the donor’s caveat is still lagging.

"We’re only 75 percent there, and the deadline is Sept. 30," Wilson said.

Naumkeag at night

What: Wander the restored gardens with a glass of wine, courtesy of Nejaime’s Wine Cellar

When: Thursdays in August and September, 5 to 8 p.m.

Lawn games tonight

Talk on servants in the Gilded Age, Aug. 29

Talk on bronze garden sculptures, Sept. 5

Garden design and restoration talk, Sept. 12

Jazz on the lawn, Sept. 19

Blues and folk with instrument maker David Reed, Sept. 26

Information: R.S.V.P. (413) 298-8138,


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