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Major Restoration Begins at Naumkeag's Gardens

Naumkeag: blue steps

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This past week, The Trustees of Reservations broke ground on what will be a 30-month, $2.6 million renovation and restoration effort of Naumkeag gardens, designed in the 1930s by Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele. 

The work for phase one of this five-phase project began on Wednesday with the removal of many damaged and overgrown trees in several areas of the grounds of the hillside estate, including the famous Blue Steps and the overgrown Linden Allée. Following the removal of the older trees, more than 250 trees of various shapes and sizes will be planted in the gardens, following Fletcher Steele’s original tactic of overplanting to create a fuller, richer gardenscape. All of the trees and plants are being removed by Mayer Tree Service, processed on site, and delivered to recycling facilities and timber process mills in the area.

“One of the key elements of Naumkeag gardens is the variety, size and coloration of the trees and plants used throughout the landscape. These elements, particularly trees that were planted 75-80 years ago, have grown beyond the original intended size, causing them overshadow other plants and block views.” says Mark Wilson, Cultural Resources Manager and Curator of Collections for The Trustees. “The work going on now is being managed by Mayer Tree. By using detailed surveys of the existing conditions and planting plans based on the archival records and photographs of the gardens, we are selectively removing trees, shrubs, hedges and other overgrown plantings and selecting the correct tree and plant to go back in the original location.” 

Work this spring will also include rebuilding the water and electrical infrastructure throughout the gardens, to make sure that the new and old plantings can be watered and that the fountains operate. The current water lines are 80 years old and are prone to leaks and failures, meaning that many of the original whimsical water features across the gardens have not worked in recent years. The new lines will make sure that no water is wasted and that the correct pressures are maintained for the five fountains throughout the property.

“Few properties in the country reflect the American transition to French Modernism better than Naumkeag,” notes Cindy Brockway, Cultural Resources Director for The Trustees. “But after more than fifty 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 will have seen such detailed restoration.”

This two-year restoration was initiated thanks to an anonymous match challenge donation. Using archival sources, The Trustees staff, with the help of many artisans and contractors, will be working to take the gardens back to how they would have appeared in the days that Fletcher Steele and Mabel Choate were designing and enjoying them in the 1930s. The gardens at Naumkeag are the result of a long and fruitful artistic collaboration between Mabel Choate and landscape architect Fletcher Steele that transformed Naumkeag over thirty years (1926-1956). Steele’s design for the Blue Steps is one of the most recognized examples of American Modernism in the country. In 1961, the gardens were awarded a prestigious Gold Medal by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. In 1975, the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places; in 2007, Naumkeag was designated a National Historic Landmark, one of the nation’s finest examples of early American Modernism in landscape architecture and a rare surviving example of the work of Fletcher Steele. 

In addition to the garden restoration, Naumkeag itself, once the summer “cottage” of the Choate family, is getting a new roof. Sustainably harvested Alaskan white cedar was used for the roof and the pattern is based on the original 1886 McKim, Mead & White architectural design. By using archival photographs and plans, the roof now has wood to match the original cypress shingles, curving lines and decorative details that typify this fine example of a shingle style home. The house and grounds will reopen in May and will feature special interpretation and information regarding all of the preservation work and the history of the gardens’ creation.

Published February 2013