Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Stops on the Road Trip Back to School - Part 1: Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts

There are still a few more gardens I visited during my travels earlier this summer that I want to post about but meanwhile the new semester is starting for me and so my parents dropped me off on campus this past weekend. On the way we stopped in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, an area of hills, woods, and scenic villages that have been popular as summer retreats with well-heeled New Yorkers since the 19th century. Among the sights we visited was Naumkeag, one of a number of historic "cottages", or summer estates, which one can tour in the region. Set on a steep slope above the little hamlet of Stockbridge, Naumkeag was the summer home of two generations of the Choate family. A successful lawyer and later US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Joseph Hodges Choate acquired the land on which the estate was built in 1884 and in 1885 architect Stanford White designed a 44-room, brick-and-shingle mansion for the site. The garden was laid out from 1888 onwards to designs developed by Nathan Barrett but the present gardens are mainly the creation of Joseph Hodges Choate's daughter Mabel and her landscape architect Fletcher Steele.

The "cottage" at Naumkeag as seen across the Tree Peony Terrace

The Blue Steps, arguably Naumkeag's most famous garden feature

The shady Afternoon Garden

Beginning with the Afternoon Garden in 1926, Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele created a number of different sections in the gardens, including the famous Blue Steps which allowed Miss Fletcher to descend from the house to her cutting garden at the base of the slope, an Evergreen Garden, and a quirky Rose Garden which has only a sprinkling of rose bushes connected by undulating bands of white gravel set in panes of grass.

A long walk of trimmed arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) in the Evergreen Garden

A fountain in the Evergreen Garden

View into the gardens from the Top Lawn adjacent to the house

A view across the unusual Rose Garden

A pink Floribunda rose (Rosa sp.) in the Rose Garden

There is also a Chinese Garden which, though probably not very authentic, is quite interesting from a design perspective and as a piece of period exotica. Among the the features of this garden room that most intrigued me where a small, unfortunately dry rill that zigzags through one corner of the garden and cut-out squares in the stone paving planted with cushion-forming pinks (Dianthus sp.).

One of the entrances to the Chinese Garden

The small "temple" that dominates the Chinese Garden

A lion statue

View across the center of the Chinese Garden; notice the squares on either side of the path planted with a minute Dianthus species

The dragon relief in front of the pavilion

Naumkeag's eclectic mix of different gardening styles and influences as well as its often fanciful adaptations of traditional garden spaces such as the rose garden or the stair case with a fountain makes it a very interesting site but unfortunately the gardens are not nearly as well maintained as they could be. While their off-beat details are still charming, it takes a bit of imagination to visualize just how great they could be.

The rill connecting the Afternoon Garden and the Blue Steps

Like several other sites in the Berkshires, Naumkeag is open to visitors from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day, daily from 10am to 5pm. Visitors can explore the gardens on their own and see the house interiors on a guided tour.


  1. I enjoyed your tour of this "cottage". The Blue Steps certainly look like its showpiece. As you've shown before, gardens make a great travel theme.

  2. The Chinese temple is about the size of my house. It's always fun to see how the other half lives and gardens. I agree, the rose garden was very unconventional, odd even.

    We've nothing like it up here in the hinterlands, so thanks for the tour.

    Christine in Alaska

  3. This garden is very beautiful. Your photos are well captured and I like the creative angles which you have taken them.


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