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 recently 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.
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.
It was Choate’s daughter, Mabel, however, who put her imprint on the gardens, 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.
The estate unfolds with an Afternoon Garden, an Oriental 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 gardens.
The last phase of the 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.
By Kathleen Quigley | Photography by Gross & Daley Photography
Landscape architect Fletcher Steele’s legacy also lives on in historic Pittsford, New York. A Woodlands Adventure reveals how Melissa McGrain restored his design to its former glory.