Use and Beauty at the Mission House (2010)
The Mission House, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
“In my ignorance I thought it would be a simple thing to move a house, put it in the middle of the lot, plant grass about it and open it to the public,” wrote Mabel Choate, in a 1932 article for her garden club. The article recounted how she had acquired a 1740s house—“unpainted and weather-beaten”—and saved it from likely destruction. Choate, who later would inherit Naumkeag, her parents’ summer estate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, had hauled it closer to the center of Stockbridge, with the goal of restoring and opening it as a museum to honor her parents, Joseph and Caroline Choate. But then she consulted landscape architect Fletcher Steele, who had begun helping her transform Naumkeag’s nineteenth-century gardens into a protomodernist landscape: “I found I was all wrong,” she wrote. Steele no doubt expressed horror that she would restore the house, originally built for the Reverend John Sergeant, a missionary to the Mohicans—only to surround it with a quarter-acre of suburban lawn. Chastened, Choate hired Steele to make “the surroundings as nearly as possible as they might have been originally.”
Between 1927 and 1932 Steele designed four lush but orderly garden rooms outlined by low boxwood hedges, perennial borders, and paths of purplish brick. His admiration of colonial gardens centered on their combination of utility and beauty, ordered by strong spatial structure: “Neat rows of vegetables, bush fruits, and fruit trees . . . prettily arranged and edged with flowers.” At Mission House he mingled herbs, vegetables, flowers, and small fruit trees. In the Dooryard Garden, brick walks separate plots of flowering perennials and herbs. Paths crisscross the Orchard Garden, where vegetables and small fruit trees—crabapples, apples, cherries, and plums—punctuate beds of herbs and flowers. The Well Court, a utilitarian yard, encloses benches and a grape arbor. The East Lawn completes the landscape.
As Robin Karson noted in Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect, the elements of this Colonial Revival design overlap with those Steele outlined in Design in the Little Garden (1924), among them winding paths, places to sit in sun and shade, flower beds anchored by shrubs and trees, and, above all, enclosure. At Mission House, he added outbuildings and a fence for that purpose. Steele and Choate collaborated on Mission House when the Colonial Revival was in full swing; one of its benchmarks, the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., also began in 1926. Rockefeller himself visited Mission House in 1943 and wrote a complimentary letter to Choate, commenting that “beauty has not been sacrificed for authenticity and historical accuracy.” The remark, probably unintentionally, struck at a common conflict in Colonial Revival “restorations”: they often conflated historical accuracy with patriotic ideas about America’s past and current aesthetic taste. The gardens designed by Steele at Mission House, for example, contained abundant flowers, a feature of more contemporary gardens. Or, as Karson writes, “Steele’s delight in invention ran deeper than the impulse to truth.”
“I think of that phrase a lot,” laughs Anne Gannon, the horticulturist who is restoring the Mission House garden to its 1930 appearance “one bed at a time.” Gannon works for The Trustees of Reservations, the conservation and historic preservation organization to which Choate donated Mission House in 1948 (and later, Naumkeag). Restoring Steele’s Colonial Revival garden involves sorting through previous redesigns and grappling with some of his plant choices. In the 1960s, a local volunteer changed Steele’s plantings and replaced the dark purple bricks with red ones. “Fortunately,” says Gannon, “the spatial layout remained intact. The structure of the gardens really defines their character.” Steele’s planting plans also survived.
In 1990, a student restored Steele’s plantings according to his 1927 plans, and The Trustees continued using the plans to guide restorative work. But over the years, the attrition of flagging species went unnoticed. “Steele started with a more diverse plant list, but only the hardiest plants have survived,” Gannon says. Among them are queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), bearded iris, wild indigo (Baptisia Vent.), chives, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), and peonies. “It’s hard to research the non-survivors, because he used common names,” Gannon says. The current goal is to reinstate plants on the original list.
Gannon began the restoration two years ago, in the Orchard Garden. “Our biggest challenge is an overabundance of shade, and some species aren’t shade tolerant.” Another issue is that Steele planted invasive species such as goutweed, money plant, mint, and mallow. “We are keeping them, but we’re keeping them in check.” The staff also has removed aged and diseased trees, which they will eventually replace. Next in line is the Dooryard Garden, followed by the East Lawn and the Well Court, over the next few years.
Meanwhile, Gannon welcomes visitors to watch the messy business of restoration—and help with it. In spring 2008, the Berkshire Garden Club donated cherry trees (Prunus avium ‘Governor Wood’) to replace aging specimens in the orchard garden. She says, “It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage volunteers and visitors in a work in progress.” (See related article on Naumkeag. Related LALH books: Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect; Design in the Little Garden; and A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era.)
—Jane Roy Brown