How to rehab a 50-year-old ‘outdoor’ room: The gardens at Naumkeag in Stockbridge get a $2 million update

Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Trees die. Fountain drains get clogged. Masonry walls crumble. When a garden landscape is 50 to 100 years old, things fall apart. The gardens at Naumkeag, the Stockbridge masterpiece of landscape architect Fletcher Steele, were in dire straits a few years ago.

“We had seen structural decline of the gardens, walls collapsing,” said Mark Wilson, statewide curator and western regional cultural resources manager for the Trustees of Reservations, which owns the property. Some old trees had become hazards. An anonymous admirer of the gardens also noticed and donated a $1 million matching challenge grant to restore the gardens. The donor specified the work must be completed in three years.

Today the restoration is two-thirds done. Wilson said there were six months of intensive preparation and research before the trustees sent out requests for proposals for the five-phase project.

Initially the staff relied heavily on the definitive biography of Steele, the landscape architect, by Amherst resident Robin Karson, who acted as a consultant.

“It is incredibly rewarding to see my scholarship help lay the groundwork for restoring this aging American garden, generally regarded as one of the most important examples of the 20th century,” Karson said last week. “The restoration is exceptionally thorough and a great success.”

Karson’s organization, the Library of American Landscape History, is sponsoring a special program including Naumkeag at the Jones Library on Sept. 4.

The trustees are fortunate to own all of Fletcher Steele’s archives, Wilson said. “We have all of his notes, plans, memos, plant lists and reminders for 30 years at Naumkeag.”

All the material is digitized at the archives in Sharon. So when Wilson needs to review a plan or a nursery list he simply emails Lucinda Brockway, program director for cultural resources, and she can send a copy electronically. Brockway who has 20 years experience in historic gardens designed the project for which Wilson is project manager. When he needs her advice on a specific area, he sends a photo on his iPod. Modern technology is a boon for this project, he said.

Infrastructure had to be addressed first, he explained. “We did directional borings that go down 6 feet, below the frost line.” Then conduits for water — to replace 80-year-old rusting iron pipes — and electric wires could be pulled through the borings. “You can do this without digging trenches all over the place,” Wilson explained. “It speeds up the process.”

In addition to hiring arborists to remove 200 dead and dying trees, Naumkeag hired Allegrone Construction of Pittsfield to do the essential hardscape. Mason Roger Tryon of Monterey did most of the extensive walls, Wilson said. They replanted 250 trees, most of them mature specimens from specialty nurseries in Pennsylvania and the Midwest.

The final phases of the project will restore the Rose Garden, the Top Lawn and Great Seat and the Chinese Temple Garden as well as the greenhouses and service areas. The entire project should be completed in 2016.

Choate and Steele

Mabel Choate, daughter of lawyer and diplomat Joseph Choate who built Naumkeag in 1885, met Steele in 1926 when he gave a lecture to the Lenox Garden Club, of which she was an avid member. Naumkeag was the Native American name for Salem where Joseph Choate was born.

Mabel Choate and Steele worked together for three decades, from 1926 to her death in 1958. It was his longest association with a client and they became close friends. He was a frequent house guest and the room where he stayed is named in his honor.

After the garden club meeting, she invited him to Naumkeag to discuss landscape improvements. Recently returned from a trip to California, she wanted someone to design an “outdoor room” such as she saw on the West Coast.

The Afternoon Garden was the marvelous result. Steele determined the outdoor room should be on the south end of the 44-room summer mansion where it would soak up the afternoon sun. He wanted a sense of enclosure, yet was reluctant to cut off the wonderful view of the Berkshire hills. His solution was to build a masonry wall to screen the garden from the driveway but leave the other two sides open to the elements. The poles are oak, carved and then painted with designs in bright blue, red and gold.

In the center of the “room” is a boxwood-edged knot garden or parterre with a focal point created by four shallow shell-like fountains around an abstract shallow pool. The central pool is black, covered with just an inch of water that reflects the sun overhead. There are plenty of seats for relaxing and an area next to the house with an awning of woven bamboo for shade.

Before the restoration, the terrace had sunk, it was lucky if three of the four fountains actually worked and the gondola poles had rotted, Wilson said. The entire garden was completely dismantled last fall with the pieces numbered. The restoration was finished this spring.

The poles were reproduced and the furniture replaced. Wilson said the new caps on the carved poles are actually resin instead of wood to avoid rot. Some of the new furniture was created by Peter Murkett of New England Modern in Southfield.

Top priority was given to restoring the iconic Blue Steps created in 1938 when Choate told Steele needed a way to access her cutting garden at the bottom of a steep slope from the house. Steele designed a narrow, brick-edged runnel carrying water from the Afternoon Garden down the slope leading to an elaborate double staircase of concrete cinder blocks with graceful white curved metal railings, backed by a low yew hedge. He surrounded the structure with dozens of paper birches echoing the white of the railings. At each landing is a semicircular recessed fountain area painted deep blue.

The concrete has been repaired, the pipes replaced and the fountains are functioning. Four dozen clumps of aging canoe birch (Betula papyrifera) were removed and replaced with new trees.

At the base of the steps is the newly recreated cutting garden.

The Linden Walk

The recent Naumkeag restoration also recreated one of the original features of the garden, the Linden Walk on the far south side of the house. Choate’s mother visited Germany shortly after the house was built in 1885 and admired the linden allees. She asked Nathan Barrett, the original landscape architect for the gardens, to create a similar feature at Naumkeag. Over the years the trees died out and the walk became disheveled. New trees (Tilia cordata) have been planted, and a replica of a statue, “Diana Robing,” has been installed at the end of the walk. It was recreated by Robert Shure of Skylight Studios in Woburn, who was once a student of the original statue’s sculptor, Archangelo Cascieri.

Steele also designed several new landscapes for Mabel Choate.

The Oak Lawn, site of the 200-year-old swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), the sweeping South Lawn whose undulating shape reflects the shape of distant Bear Mountain, and the Ronde Pointe with its tiny Chinese Pagoda at the entrance to Linden Walk, were all designed by Steele between 1935 and 1940.

Naumkeag is a garden to enjoy at a leisurely pace. Steele’s philosophy was for the landscape architect to reveal the “genius of the place.” Restorations at Naumkeag are returning the garden to its early elegance.

“You get excited about what you’ve done,” said Wilson, the Trustees’ cultural resources manager. “It’s inspiring to bring all this back to life.”

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.

Naumkeag is at 5 Prospect Hill Road in Stockbridge. It is open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $15; children are free. There are guided tours of the house and the garden as well as an audio tour of the gardens available with the admission fee. For information, call 298-8138.