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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.