Naumkeag’s Iconic Landscape

This historic 1880s estate in the Berkshires reflects landscape architect Fletcher Steele’s 30-year collaboration with Mabel Choate.

Originally published May 2019. Updated May 9, 2023. Fletcher Steele designed some 700 gardens, principally in the Northeast. One of the few open to the public is Naumkeag in the Berkshires. The garden has seen a $3.5 million restoration that began with bringing back the iconic Blue Steps. These concrete steps, an Art Deco interpretation of an Italian water staircase, cut a swath of high drama down the steep hillside, through a grove of white birch trees.

Fletcher Steele's iconic Blue Steps at Naumkeag with bright orange daylilies blooming at bottom, and white-barked birches planted on each level.
The iconic Blue Steps at Naumkeag gave Miss Choate access to her cutting gardens and greenhouses downhill from the house.

Naumkeag was built in the 1880s by Joseph Choate, an attorney who became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James. His wife, Caroline, an artist, supported the founding of Barnard College. Their 44-room Shingle-style cottage was designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White. Naumkeag—pronounced like NOWM-keg—takes its name from a group of Native Americans and their settlement at the site of Salem, Massachusetts. Mr Choate was born in Salem and named the home in tribute to his hometown.

Naumkeag estate built in the 1880s by Joseph Choate, featuring grounds designed by landscape architect Fletcher Steele
The Stanford White designed shingle-style cottage at Naumkeag seen from the Evergreen Garden with its large, round pool and fountain surrounded on three sides by evergreens.

It was Choate’s daughter, Mabel, however, who put her imprint on the gardens at Naumkeag, working with Steele on a collaboration that unfolded over 30 years. Upon Mabel’s death, Naumkeag was bequeathed to The Trustees of Reservations, Massachusetts’ largest conservation and preservation trust.

Serpentine lines of pink gravel in the Rose Garden at Naumkeag were originally planted with red, orange, and yellow roses. Seen here, bordered with purple flowering salvias.
Serpentine lines of pink gravel in the Rose Garden were originally planted with red, orange, and yellow roses. Seen here, bordered with purple flowering salvias, the rose garden is also sometimes planted with beds of tulips.

The estate unfolds with an Afternoon Garden, a Tree Peony Terrace, a Rose Garden with serpentine gravel paths, an Evergreen Garden, a Chinese Garden with moon gate, and a Linden Walk with allée (the latter designed prior to Steele by Nathan Barrett). Mabel was an avid traveler, whose trips—particularly to China and California—were inspirational in developing the design of the Naumkeag gardens.

Naumkeag’s Afternoon Garden with parterre and Venetian gondola poles.
Naumkeag’s Afternoon Garden was inspired by Mabel Choate’s love for travel. One of her favorite destinations was Venice, which led to the installation of the ornate gondola poles that frame the clipped boxwood and fountains off of the home’s library.
Service court gate opening into the landing at the steps to the Afternoon Garden. Frederick MacMonnie’s sculpture “Young Faun with Heron” stands a the corner beside a Venetian gondola pole.
The Eastern Service Court gate opens onto the landing just off the Afternoon Garden, giving a glimpse of Frederick MacMonnie’s sculpture “Young Faun with Heron” overlooking the view.

The last phase of the Naumkeag gardens restoration included re-creating the greenhouses and cutting gardens, reached via the Blue Steps, designed so that Mabel could walk down the steep hillside to get fresh flowers for the house.

The walled, Chinese Garden at Naumkeag
Naumkeag's walled, Chinese Garden draws inspiration from across Asia and includes a planting of nine ginkgo trees and masses of butterburr.
Moon Gate in a brick wall, opening into the Chinese Garden at Naumkeag
Moon Gate opening into the walled Chinese Garden at Naumkeag

By Kathleen Quigley | Photography by Gross & Daley Photography

See another garden where Fletcher Steele’s legacy lives on in historic Pittsford, New York. A Woodlands Adventure reveals how Melissa McGrain restored his design to its former glory.

See more must-visit American estate gardens.

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