The Trustees did what seemed impossible two months ago. They put Naumkeag back together again. And it really sparkles.

South lawn towards the pavillion
View of restored south lawn, towards the pavillion. Courtesy the Trustees of Reservations.

Like a newly cleaned Rembrandt, the garden’s details shine forth as never before, perhaps not even in Mabel Choate’s own lifetime.  Lost for decades, many were uncovered in recently discovered photos and, in some cases, literal digging in the dirt. The richness of Steele and Choate’s design is dazzling in its complexity. Among the “new” features are an excavated rock garden, paths, fountains, and the hillside pet cemetery where Miss Choate’s succession of terriers reside.

Steele’s great achievement at Naumkeag and in the other six hundred gardens he designed, was in knowing how to balance details with a sense of cohesiveness that extends, in this case, even to Bear Mountain in the distance. Anyone who has ever made a garden knows just how difficult this is. Too much detail, and the entire thing falls apart. Too little detail, and the place lacks character. There is nothing to fasten us down. Steele worked this out brilliantly at Naumkeag, where he and Choate agreed that the Victorian character of Nathan Barrett’s original design should be preserved wherever possible. This was a fussy garden from the moment it was laid out in the 1880s, and the garden-makers stayed true to the complexity that characterized the period.

Oak tree in restored south lawn
Oak tree in restored south lawn. Courtesy the Trustees of Reservations.

Another principle Steele worked out during this very long project was the idea that a garden should reflect the nature of the people who were going to live in it–and that it should be a place to dream. He described his method:

He must first study the personality of the people for whom the place is to be created. He refuses to be turned out in the front yard like a dog while his client holds him on a leash demanding “What would you do here? Make me a pool under that tree.”

Instead he wanders into the house and sees what kind of books she reads, what kind of furniture and bric-a-brac she gathers about her. He gets her talking about her travels and the places she likes the best and ones she does not like. He probes to discover, not what she has, but what she dreams of having; not what she does but what she would like to do.

One primary achievement of the restoration at Naumkeag (and there is much more to come) is how much more vivid Mabel Choate has become–what she dreamt of having and what she liked to do. She is inhabiting this garden in a new way.

Restored Blue Steps with cutting garden
Restored Blue Steps with cutting garden. Courtesy the Trustees of Reservations.

One of the Trustees’ best decisions in this regard was to restore the cutting garden to the bottom of the Blue Steps. (It was the slippery, lilac-covered slope that led Choate to request Steele to design a set of stairs in the first place. Keep it simple, she said. Inexpensive.)   Now the stairway makes sense.  However not simple and not inexpensive it turned out to be.