Restoring meticulous beauty: Naumkeag's $3.3M renovation underway


STOCKBRIDGE -- The vision and friendship of preservationist and horticulturalist Mabel Choate and landscape architect Fletcher Steele are forged within every meticulous detail of the natural estate at Naumkeag, from the Venetian gondola poles of the Afternoon Garden to the iconic Blue Steps created as a pathway to Choate's beloved cutting garden.

The spirit of the designs and vistas they created have survived the decades since Choate and Steele began collaborating in 1926, but the grounds and details themselves have been deteriorating.

"Trees age and decay, stonework collapses and Berkshire winters are tough," said Mark Wilson, statewide curator and cultural resources manager for the Western Region of The Trustees of Reservations.

Naumkeag, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1886 as a 44-room, three-season country estate on 46 acres 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. Mabel is their daughter and later inherited the estate.

In hopes of preserving the legacy of this family and property here in the Berkshires, The Trustees launched a fundraising campaign for a multi-year project to restore the property and grounds to its original splendor.

The campaign received a generous boost with a $1 million matching gift from an anonymous donor.

The Trustees are also working with state and other grant funds in order to do the work.

Joanna Ballantine, director for The Trustees of Reservations Western Region, said the total project cost is estimated at $3.3 million, which includes landscaping and garden restoration as well as renovations to the mansion's roof.

The roof is now halfway done and phase one of five is now complete. This Saturday, The Trustees will host the Blue Steps 75th Anniversary Celebration and Fundraiser at Naumkeag.

"This is a really a new event for us, designed to celebrate the Blue Steps and also to help us meet the challenge to raise funds for our matching donation," said Ballantine. "It's also a chance for people to see the restoration work in action."

The start of the restoration project began first in snow, then in rain and now continues in the summer heat. Still, local work crews from Pittsfield to Monterey were able to get their work done in 12 weeks to keep on schedule.

They cleared nearly 200 trees, restructured a stone wall near the Chinese pagoda on the south lawn, and restored the original vista and landscape profile matching the curves of Bear Mountain. They repainted and repaired stone and cedar work for the Blue Steps and planted 49 birch trees to fill out the grove that surrounds the staircase. They also expanded and restored the view and path of the Linden Allee.

"We knew we were doing it right because we'd look up and have these ‘oh wow' moments. This work really opens up the views again," said Wilson.

He said all the restoration work is informed by historic records, which were well-kept.

The next phase of work will involve the Afternoon Garden.

"We also have community workdays and will be doing more. Now that we're finishing up all the landscaping and gardening work, we need to maintain it, and we need volunteers to help," Wilson said.

This week, Linda J. Orlomoski, a travel blogger who also writes "Travels with Nathaniel," visited Naumkeag for the first time with her friend Paula Roswell from southern Connecticut.

"I will have to say of all The Trustees venues I've been to, [Naumkeag is] probably the most beautiful," said Orlomoski, who lauded both the grounds and the docent staff. "There really is just so much attention to detail."

To reach Jenn Smith:,
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On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink


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