Fletcher Steele (1885–1971) founded his Boston-based practice in 1913 after a five-year apprenticeship with Warren Manning and became one of the most experimental landscape architects of the period. Throughout his career, Steele viewed plants unsentimentally, as abstract color and form. When he met Mabel Choate in 1925, Steele was at the height of his fame; she was about to inherit Naumkeag, the family’s Berkshire summer estate, designed for her parents in 1885 by the well-known architect Stanford White.
Choate asked Steele to create a comfortable and private place to sit because her parents’ Victorian flower gardens (designed by Nathan Barrett) had none. He obliged with the Afternoon Garden, an exotic and richly textured outdoor room unprecedented in garden history. The layout provided transporting mountain views and was enlivened by features that recalled his client’s European travels and interests. During the project, Steele and his client discovered many mutual interests—not least, good food and drink—and he became intrigued with the fundamentally American notion that clients’ personalities could offer a unique source of design inspiration. Steele continued to invent new gardens for Naumkeag over the next three decades, as Choate’s budget permitted, responding to her “dreams and preferences” and the beauty of the site, while utilizing the landscape as a laboratory for his iconoclastic investigations into form, line, and color.
Among Steele’s last designs for Naumkeag were the Blue Steps (c. 1937), now one of the best-known images in American garden history. To realize the feature, he used industrial materials—cast concrete and metal pipe—and the Italian Renaissance form of the water staircase, planted with lithe white birches that uncannily mimic the stair railings. The fairytale descent offers a witty reconciliation of the formal-informal debate dominating the period. The Blue Steps form an exhilarating, almost Mannerist conclusion to the stylistic explorations of the American Country Place Era.
Design by Nathan Barrett and Fletcher Steele, 1885–1950.
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