(STOCKBRIDGE, Mass.) – The gardens at Naumkeag – one of the nation’s finest examples of early American Modern landscape architecture and a rare surviving example of the work of America’s first, modern landscape architect, Fletcher Steele – are undergoing extensive restoration this season. Visited by thousands of garden, landscape and history enthusiasts each year, the gardens at Naumkeag – a National Historic Landmark, owned by The Trustees of Reservations – are a masterpiece of 30 years of collaborative, creative work between former owner Mabel Choate and Steele.
Perhaps the most dramatic restoration to occur this spring will be that of Fletcher Steele’s renowned Blue Steps, one of the most famous and photographed garden features in 20th-century American landscape design and a true expression of Steele’s belief that garden design should be considered one of the fine arts. Not only will the steps be repointed, repainted and re-grouted, but the iconic white Birch trees that so elegantly frame them will be replaced and supplemented with the planting of 40 additional trees. Phase one is expected to be completed in time for a summer party to officially kick off the restoration project and celebrate the Blue Steps’ 75th anniversary.
Many other important structural, cultural and natural garden and landscape features located throughout Naumkeag will also be restored, replicated and reinvigorated through a total of 16 projects, most of which will include rebuilding, and in some cases reproducing, foundational elements such as fountains and waters systems, masonry, decorative arts and original plantings.
Over the last 10 years, The Trustees have worked diligently to restore several of Naumkeag’ s signature garden areas, including the Peony Terrace, Chinese Temple, and Evergreen Garden. Since then, additional aspects of the garden have suffered the effects of time as well as damage from harsh New England weather. Original plantings have aged or disappeared, trees have become unhealthy and overgrown resulting in obstructed views and certain structural and design features have deteriorated. As a result, The Trustees are increasing the pace of their restoration efforts to bring all eight landscaped acres surrounding Naumkeag back to their former brilliance and original design over the next three years.
A recent video created by the Library of American Landscape History described Naumkeag’s gardens as “a playground for the imagination which boasts some of the most vibrant, original and luminous gardens on the North American continent.” Thanks to a carefully planned preservation effort being lead by Trustees’ Cultural Resources Program Director Cindy Brockway and Statewide Curator and Western Regional Cultural Resources Manager Mark Wilson, and supported by a talented team of staff, volunteers, artisans and consultants, they are about to undergo a dramatic renaissance designed to ensure their beauty and vitality for decades to come.
“Few properties in the country reflect the American transition to French Modernism better than Naumkeag,” says Cindy Brockway, Trustees Cultural Resources Director. “But after more than 50 years, the gardens need a refresh and a rejuvenation of the intricate details of scale, furnishings and plantings that made Naumkeag a work of fine art. By the end of the project, few landscapes in the country have seen such a detailed restoration.”
The first phase of the $2.8-million five-phase restoration effort, supported initially by a generous anonymous donor who has pledged to match up to $1 million in donations, began last week with the removal of damaged and overgrown trees located throughout several areas around the hillside estate, including along the Linden Allée, a once-verdant pathway modeled after the wooded walks of Germany. Following the removal of the older trees, more than 250 trees of various shapes and sizes will be planted amongst the gardens, following Fletcher Steele’s original tactic of overplanting to create a fuller, richer garden-scape. All of the trees and plants are being removed by Mayer Tree Service, processed on site and delivered to recycling facilities and timber mills in the area.
Conducting extensive behind-the-scenes research and planning over many months, Wilson, Brockway, and their team have carefully culled hundreds of original design plans, historic photos, notes, letters and documents from Fletcher Steele and Mabel Choate in order to create a thoughtful, thorough and authentic restoration plan that will bring back the “polish” and “shine” to Naumkeag’s gardens.
“We are excited to refresh some of the key planting and design elements that were so important to Mabel and Fletcher’s original intentions for this special property,” says Wilson. “Whether it is the variety of plant material lost over time, the overgrown secret pathways or the damaged decorative art objects, artifacts and garden sculptures, our goal is to document every step of the process so future caretakers and generations will be able to use our preservation plan as a reference guide and model for authentic garden restoration.”
Adds Barbara Erickson, Trustees President, “The iconic gardens at Naumkeag are one of only a few Fletcher Steele-designed gardens viewable to the public and we want people to be able to experience them in their full and original brilliance. Mabel Choate chose to bequeath her family home to The Trustees knowing it would be lovingly maintained and shared with generations to come. It is part of our mission and true passion to ensure their exemplary care for everyone, forever.”
As Steele so eloquently once wrote, “Of all the works of man, the garden alone becomes more beautiful as generations pass through it.” It is this and Mabel Choate’s vision for the Naumkeag gardens that has served as The Trustees’ impetus for the renovation. For more information on the restoration project and/or how to support the campaign, visit Naumkeag.