Once the summer retreat of New England blue bloods, an estate in the Berkshires retains its elevated status
Can you say that a 44-room Shingle Style cottage “perches” on a hillside? Maybe “presides over” is the more accurate description of Naumkeag’s presence just up the road from the center of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
It presides, yet recedes into the surrounding landscape. What makes this Trustees of Reservations property one of the Bay State’s “irreplaceable natural and cultural treasures,” as that nonprofit puts it, is its gardens and grounds—and its views of the Berkshire mountains beyond.
Naumkeag was originally the summer home of the blue-blooded Choates. The family trees of both Joseph and Caroline Sterling Choate, who built it, includes New England’s first white settlers, Revolutionary War veterans, and U.S. senators.
Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Joseph made his name and a vast fortune as an attorney. He argued cases before the Supreme Court and served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of Saint James in the early 1900s. Caroline, a member of New York’s social elite the Four Hundred, was an advocate of women’s higher education who helped to found Barnard College. She was studying art and considered herself wedded to that calling when she met Joseph, then a young lawyer “winning his spurs at the bar,” according to her New York Times obituary.
Materially, their marriage in 1861 got off to a modest start, but with certain amenities, listed in a letter Joseph wrote his mother: “a bed, two tables, four chairs and a sofa, a cream pitcher, an asparagus fork, six salt cellars and a rug, and there might be a much meaner stock to begin upon than that, you know.”
By 1884, the Choates could afford to hire Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White, then on its way to becoming the premier architectural firm of the Gilded Age, to design a summer home for them. Over time, Joseph and Caroline, and later their daughter Mabel, acquired antiques, art, and oriental rugs (as well as a 1930s-era Frigidaire for the kitchen) to keep that lonely asparagus fork company.
Prominent Boston landscape architect Nathan Franklin Barrett laid out the grounds on the steep slope of Prospect Hill, previously a favorite picnicking site of the family. His plans spared a favorite oak tree and introduced the copper and European beeches that are now majestic specimens.
Mabel Choate became Naumkeag’s guardian after her mother’s death in 1929. Like many socialites of her time, her life was a mix of purpose and privilege.
In the “privilege” category: A few months after her mother’s death, and the Stock Market Crash, she bought a 15-room duplex on Park Avenue. In the “purpose” category, she was a philanthropist and an active advocate for such causes as maternal health, neurological research and treatment, and historic preservation. She seems to have lived her life with energy and flair (that hat!), traveling in Europe and Asia, collecting fine art, furniture, and decorative art objects, entertaining—the Baron and Baroness Rosenkrantz, in Hot Springs, Virginia, the Condé Nasts in Stockbridge.
And she had a passion for gardens. According to the Trustees’ archives website, she was a member of the Garden Club of America, the American Peony Society, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and the Lenox Garden Club.
In 1926, at the Lenox Garden Club, she met the master landscape architect Fletcher Steele, then in the early years of his career. That meeting was the start of a nearly 30-year collaboration in the reimagining, remaking, and expanding of the estate’s gardens. Steele had his own room at Naumkeag, with a bell connected to the kitchen, and Mabel gave a birthday party for him every year.
“In my mind, Naumkeag is now a work of art,” Choate wrote Steele in 1950, when she was 80. “Thanks to you. I am more interested in it and excited about it all the time.”
Eight years later, Mabel Choate died and through her bequest, Naumkeag became a Trustees property.
Steele combined a modern approach to design with the belief that gardens should have a “patina,” according to a Spring 2016 Preservation Magazine article. (He said of Naumkeag some 20 years into it, “Nothing gets right until Time gets in its work.”) In the decades after 1958, the gardens’ patina-making outran Choate’s endowment for their maintenance. A million-dollar matching gift to the Trustees in 2012 made an extensive restoration possible. During the process, workers unearthed a lost rock garden and determined that the famous blue steps were originally navy, not the bright blue they had been repainted over the years.
About designing the Blue Steps, Steele said, “I figure that comfort in going up a steep hill depends on variety of leg action, the lack of which makes a long flight of steps intolerable … So I put up four ‘divisions,’ each one having a couple of steps and turns, two ramps of different steepness and a graduated flight of half a dozen steps to a platform.”
When you see the steps, their gracefulness, more than their engineering, is what stands out. Google “Naumkeag,” and their image is everywhere, but by exercising some leg actions of your own when you’re there, you can discover several other dramatic settings: the re-created linden allée, the Chinese Temple Garden entered through the Moon Gate, and the Afternoon Garden, with a parterre bordered by Venetian gondola poles.
I went to Naumkeag most recently for its Tulip and Daffodil Festival, a succession and a profusion of spring flowers, more than 130,000 bulbs in all, that goes from mid-March to mid-May. During the festival, if you can tear yourself away from all that floral glory, you can also tour the ground floor of the house.
In the heat of the summer, the somewhat shadowy interiors (lots of dark woodwork, antique tapestries on the walls) must have offered a cool refuge. It’s a showplace, but not terribly showy. Like Steele’s garden designs, the house has a patina, too: from the soft golden glow of a miniature Chinese screen on a mantel, the glimmer of the dining room’s tin-leaf ceiling.
I enjoyed my look-round, but the spring light was calling, and I wanted to see everything outside before I ran out of steam. So, I moved on to the Chinese Temple Garden to admire the aged marble paving, the young ginkgos, a comical trio of watering cans, and the copious peonies (plus a shocking-pink art installation in the temple that seemed made to be Instagrammed).
My last stop was the fountain where artificial bubbles floated on the water, and real ones into the air, a delightful, mysterious reminder that the beauty of gardens, even those that endure, is ephemeral and evanescent.
The tulips are all just a memory, but Naumkeag’s gardens are open for the summer season, Thursdays through Sundays. At the nearer end of the linden allee, there’s a terrace with tables and chairs and a food kiosk offering drinks and snacks. Find the Naumkeag website here.
The restoration of the gardens is a fascinating story in itself. You can learn more about it in the Preservation Magazine article mentioned above and this photo essay from the National Trust for Historic Preservation website.
Robin Karson’s Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect: An Account of the Gardenmaker’s Life, 1885-1971, University of Massachusetts Press, is an excellent account of his life and career.
And to read more about Joseph Choate, who led a full and interesting life, take a look at this American Heritage article.