Naumkeag is one of America’s finest gardens. Located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and designed over a period of 30 years from 1925-1956, the garden reflects the desires of the last owner, Mabel Choate, and the skills of her friend and collaborator, the landscape architect Fletcher Steele. Pushing the boundaries of the old Beaux Arts traditions, together they took ideas culled from many trips abroad, from the Italian Renaissance to French modernism, and wove them into new forms to create an American masterpiece.
In 2007 I visited Naumkeag for the first time. I loved the place — the shingled house, the views onto the countryside, the flavour of a Gilded Age, country style.
The Afternoon Garden with its rope swags, painted gondola poles and strangely decorated furniture charmed me. The swirls and exuberance of the Rose Garden opened windows onto new attitudes towards the arrangement of flowers in garden beds. The Blue Steps, an icon of American garden design, were even more wonderful than I anticipated, stylish and modern in their use of ordinary materials. The terraces, the outlooks, the details of edgings and the shapes of steps and benches: all suggested ideas I could use to improve my own garden. It’s true that the Chinese garden was a disappointment — it felt like a tired afterthought — but with so many other aspects of the garden to admire, I easily overlooked its short-comings.
That was eight years ago. In those eight years I’ve grown as a gardener and landscape designer. I’ve visited outstanding gardens around the world and honed my own skills and ideas. So when I planned a return visit to Naumkeag earlier this month, I wondered if I would still be as delighted by what I saw.
I was. If anything, I found more to admire in Steele’s designs, now being restored as part of a multi-million dollar project that began in 2013.
I arrived unaware that work was going on, but the barriers around the Chinese garden alerted me immediately.
A wedding reception was taking place later in the afternoon of my visit, which meant that a large portion of the terraces were off limits. This did not sit well with me and I considered asking for my $15 admission fee to be returned. But the day was warm and sunny and my mood improved as soon as I entered the newly renovated Afternoon Garden. It sparkled. It made me smile. In my mind I compared what it had looked like in 2007 …
with what it looked like now. Some of the changes I noticed immediately — the shiny new gondola poles in particular — but others I noted only when I compared photos.
In the central portion of the Afternoon Garden a small pool is surrounded by an intricately woven boxwood parterre. Fountains shaped like scallop shells add a light touch, as do the elaborate and oddly coloured chairs and benches.
Before and after photos illustrate how effective the restoration has been. Elements that were hidden are now highlighted.
Newly replanted, the boxwood is now in scale with Steele’s intent, and the details of the intricate design are clear.
Even more impressive were the changes to the Linden Walk. This allée, inspired by the linden allées of Berlin, was planted in 1890 by Mabel’s mother, Caroline Choate. When I visited in 2007, the walk was dark, almost spooky. The trees were damaged and overgrown.
Now the allée sparkles in the sunlight.
The Blue Steps, arguably Fletcher Steele’s most famous design, were built when Mabel Choate asked for an easier way to get from the house down the hill to her cutting garden. Major changes here involved a complete renewal of the water system that feeds the runnell, or rill, that moves from the Afternoon Garden to the Blue Steps themselves. I failed to even notice this feature in 2007; now its downhill trajectory can’t be missed.
Many of the birch trees that frame the Blue Steps and create the contrast between the step’s Renaissance-inspired forms and the natural forested hillside around them have been replanted. The concrete half-moons that rise in sweeps have been repainted.
The shrubs surrounding the steps, replanted in 2013, are no longer bare at the bottom. The curving metal handrail is as graceful as always, accentuated now by a shorter hedge.
The rose garden, designed by Steele to be seen from Mabel’s bedroom above, continues to scroll across the ground, as it has since 1952.
The roses in the Rose Garden are scheduled to be replanted next year. Knowing this pleases me — it gives me a reason to return for a third visit to this splendid site, one of only a few Fletcher Steele–designed gardens open to the public. I look forward as well to seeing the Chinese garden. When it re-opens, I expect it to be as greatly improved by the restoration as other parts of the garden have been.
Bravo to those responsible and all those involved in making this project a success. A special acknowledgement should go to the generous donor who put forward the original $1 million challenge grant. Thank you, whoever you are!
A practical note: Naumkeag is open May 24 to October 12, daily, 10AM to 5PM. Allow a minimum of 1 hour for the garden, 2 hours if also taking the house tour.