Stockbridge, MA – March 1, 2013 – 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 and nestled the heart of the Berkshires – are a masterpiece of 30 years of collaborative, creative work between former owner Mabel Choate and America’s first, modern landscape architect, Fletcher Steele. The gardens are one of the nation’s finest examples of early American Modern landscape architecture and a rare surviving example of the work of Fletcher Steele. 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.
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.
“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 $2.6-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.
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.
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.”
“Like our recent landscape restoration of the Grand Allée at Castle Hill, we take our responsibility as caretakers of these magnificent National Historic Landmarks very seriously,” adds Barbara Erickson, Trustees President & CEO. “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.
About the Trustees of Reservations
The Trustees of Reservations is the nation’s oldest, statewide land trust and Massachusetts’ largest conservation organization founded by open space visionary Charles Eliot in 1891 to “hold in trust” and care for properties, or “reservations,” of scenic, cultural, and natural significance for current and future generations to enjoy. Supported by more than 100,000 members and donors and thousands of volunteers, The Trustees own and manage 109 spectacular reservations located on more than 26,000 acres throughout Massachusetts. Reservations range from working farms, historic homesteads and gardens to community parks and gardens, barrier beaches and mountain vistas and include five National Historic Landmarks, a National Natural Landmark, and seven properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Trustees work to promote healthy, active, and green communities through hundreds of annual outreach programs, workshops, and events for all ages. Accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, The Trustees are an established leader in the conservation and preservation movement and model for other land trusts nationally and internationally. One of the largest nonprofits in Massachusetts, The Trustees employ 150 full-time, 49 regular part-time, and 400 seasonal staff with expertise in cultural resources, land protection, education, ecology, conservation, land management, and planning. To find out more or to become a member or volunteer, please contact www.thetrustees.org.