Sprucing Up Naumkeag's Gardens

Jul 10, 2015

The historic landscape of the Gilded Age cottage known as Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is in the midst of a $3- million restoration.

The gardens of Naumkeag have the feel of a landscaped theme park with terraces, fountains and statues from around the globe serving as eye-capturing attractions. And it’s in the midst of a three-year restoration—currently, workers on the Trustees of Reservations property are freshening up the features of the 50-acre estate.

Mark Wilson is in charge of restoring the landscape completed over a nearly 30-year period by architect Fletcher Steele collaborating with Mabel Choate, who took over the property from her father and famed New York City lawyer Joseph Choate.

“There are pieces as you walk through the gardens, little mysteries that pop up, you walk down the south lawn and all of a sudden  appears the long Linden Alleé,” Wilson said. “Which is completely hidden from view when you are up on top of the property. That’s part of his design. He wants you to come in, explore and enjoy. That’s what Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele…meant to be gardens where you could be a kid come in and have fun. That’s what they wrote about and that’s what we’re bringing back here.”

One of the most striking features is the afternoon garden.

“Which is an outdoor room off the south side of the house,” Wilson said. “It was designed to be a place where people could gather in the afternoons with the relaxing sound of running water of the fountains in the center. Also these large gondola poles which were carved when the garden was put in place. They reflect on Mabel Choate’s love of Venice. It was one of her favorite places to visit in Europe. It also allows you to be inside the garden and look out at the surrounding Berkshire Hills and it helps to frame those views. So it creates a sense of a room while allowing you to look out.”

Suffering from years of damage, the wooden gondola poles were re-carved by the apprentice of the original craftsman and repainted using old photographs and paint samples found in the poles’ crevices. Maybe the most well-known of Steele’s works are the blue steps. The staircase’s four fountain backsplashes got a fresh coat of paint harkening back to an original darker blue. Wilson says Steele was known for overpopulating his gardens, so workers have removed some 250 trees. But one in particular isn’t going anywhere.

“This, the large oak tree, that stood on the property, the one the family the picnicked under and drew them to the property, gets a lot of love and care,” said Wilson.

The final restoration piece is the Chinese temple garden which is expected to open in spring 2015. Since the area is surrounded by a wall, which you hear being worked on, a crane drops backhoes and other large items into the garden.

“It took over 20 years for Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele to complete this garden,” Wilson explains. “It started in 1936 and finished in 1956. There are different phases that they built the garden in so we are restoring all of those pieces. So many different elements…the large brick and stone wall that surrounds the garden, interior terraces that had collapsed, trees and shrubs missing from the interior, there are over 45 different decorative elements, sculptures, chairs and flowerpots that are missing from the garden. All those are coming back in as part of the restoration.”

In the midst of the outdoor restoration, guide Julie Gorman calls visitors in to tour the 17-bedroom cottage by hitting a gong that sits on the back porch. Mabel Choate bequeathed the home in its current state, down to the dog bowls in the kitchen, to the Trustees upon her death in 1958. 

Apart from artifacts gathered by the family during their travels, Gorman gives tidbits of life in the home, including the arrival of a Frigidaire refrigerator around the 1930s.

“So they lug it in and they plug it in,” Gorman explains. “And then the motor is so loud you can hear it in the dining room. Well that wouldn’t do. But, this is Mable Choat and she moved entire homes across town. She simple had the motor put down below in the kitchen area and had it wired up.”

Including the physical improvements, the Trustees of Reservations is in the midst of a $26-million statewide campaign to make their properties more interactive by hosting family-themed events and tours which shed light on how servants lived and worked at Naumkeag. Dyan Wiley is the Trustees’ engagement manger for central and western Massachusetts.

“For some people they’re into photography, so we have a photography class here,” Wiley said. “Some people are coming because they know the gardens here are landmark gardens. The performances are something that families are drawn to regardless of where it is. So I think we are going after a multi-faceted approach. Some families are coming because of the history, because people lived a different way. So I think we are just adding to the menu.”