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A Gift for Naumkeag’s Landscape

Blue Steps. Naumkeag, Stockbridge, Mass.

Blue Steps. Naumkeag, Stockbridge, Mass. Photo by Carol Betsch.

The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit preservation and conservation organization in Massachusetts, recently received a $1 million challenge grant to be spent solely on restoring the landscape at Naumkeag—the Choate estate in Stockbridge, a National Historic Landmark property owned and managed by The Trustees. The Trustees must raise a match by September 30.

Naumkeag’s house was designed in the 1880s by McKim, Mead & White for the family of Joseph Choate, a famous trial lawyer and ambassador. Today, the estate is equally if not more renowned for its landscape. In the mid 1920s, landscape architect Fletcher Steele (1885–1971) and his client Mabel Choate began a spirited, innovative redesign of the original Victorian gardens. In the iconic Blue Steps and the deft curve of the South Lawn, landscape architecture scholars have observed the dawning of modern landscape design.

Naumkeag, South Lawn after grading, c. 1940

Naumkeag, South Lawn after grading, c. 1940. The roof line of the garden structure mimics the spruce. Courtesy SUNY ESF College Archives.

Mark Wilson, statewide curator of collections and Western Region cultural resources specialist for The Trustees, says that the landscape’s widespread recognition began with Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect, by LALH Executive Director Robin Karson. “A big part of why Naumkeag received National Historic Landmark status was the understanding, established by this book, that Steele’s design for these gardens was a crucial transition to modern design,” Wilson says. “For this donor, too, the understanding of these gardens’ importance started with the book, complemented by the original documents we have.” LALH has since built on that scholarship with the mini-documentary film Fletcher Steele and Naumkeag: A Playground of the Imagination, which The Trustees is screening for Naumkeag visitors.

Recent view of the South lawn

Recent view of the South lawn. LALH archive.

Cindy Brockway, program director, cultural resources at The Trustees, is developing the restoration plans for Naumkeag’s gardens. “Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect continues to serve as a seminal guide for the restoration, providing site-specific historical information and design context for this Steele-Choate master work,” says Brockway.

Pavilion and view into Ronde Point.

Pavilion and view into Ronde Point, c. 1940. Courtesy The Trustees of Reservations.

The three-year, five-phase project began this spring. “The donor, who has requested anonymity, knows and loves these gardens and has asked us to move forward on an active schedule and to do the work to the highest standards, using it as an opportunity to generate well-deserved interest in the gardens and to attract more people to come here,” Wilson says.

Restoration underway near Pavilion, with view to house this

Restoration underway near Pavilion, with view to house. LALH archive.

He invited Karson to consult on the restoration, which involves taking out approximately two hundred trees and planting five hundred others, extensive renovations to the various water systems, and major rebuilding of stone walls. The concrete wells of the Blue Steps will also be returned to their original hue–a deep aquamarine. “Anyone interested in seeing a major landscape restoration in progress should make a visit,” Karson says. “The scale of the undertaking is extraordinary.”

If you would like to learn more about the restoration project read Robin Karson’s recent blog post on the LALH blog.

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