About Naumkeag – The Home, the History, and the Gardens
Tucked away in the picturesque southern hills of the Berkshires ands perched on the upper edge of 46 acres of pasture, woodlands and gardens in Stockbridge, Naumkeag is a quintessential country estate of the bygone Gilded Age and one of the only remaining intact historic house museums in Massachusetts. Named for the Native American word for the area around Salem, Massachusetts, the 44-room estate was designed by the famous firm of McKim, Mead & White, and constructed between 1885 and 1886 as a summer home for the family of Joseph Hodges Choate (1832-1917), a famous New York lawyer and Ambassador to the Court of St. James and his wife Caroline Sterling Choate (1837-1929), an artist and co-founder of Barnard College. Naumkeag was designed an escape from the city so the Choate family could enjoy a more picturesque, pastoral life. The property originally included a farm, greenhouses and vegetable gardens. Unlike the larger houses of Newport, RI and Lenox, which were open for only a six-week “season,” the Choates summered at Naumkeag from April to November.
The house combined the new “Shingle Style” with traditional European elements including brick and stone towers, two-tone brick patterns and wrought iron architectural details. Inside, the home is decorated with elegant cherry, oak and mahogany paneling, ornate plaster, decorative flooring, brass and silver hardware and a three-story hand-carved oak staircase and is filled with original late 19th century furnishings, arts and antiques collected from around the world by the Choate family. Between 1884 and 1890, landscape architect Nathan Barrett developed cut flower gardens, a tennis court, a linden walk, an orchard, and a farm complex around the main house. Beyond the Victorian gardens, the site’s natural scenic beauty completed one of the most picturesque compositions in the Berkshires.
It was the Choate’s daughter Mabel, however, who would have perhaps the greatest influence on the Naumkeag gardens. After inheriting the estate in 1929, Mabel and acclaimed landscape architect Fletcher Steele began a long and fruitful artistic collaboration that preserved the best of the original Barrett design while transforming the landscape at Naumkeag over the next three decades into a playful, diverse series of “Garden Rooms.” Pushing the boundaries of the old Beaux Arts traditions, Choate and Steele wove new artistic expressions culled from trips abroad including French Modernism into Naumkeag’s magnificent and renowned masterpieces such as the Afternoon Garden, the Blue Steps and the Tree Peony Terrace. A trip to China inspired the Chinese Garden in which Steele incorporated real Chinese artifacts and building techniques. One of Steele’s longest running career commissions, Naumkeag’s gardens (along with The Trustees’ historic Mission House gardens also in Stockbridge) are also one of only a few of his over 700 designs viewable to the public.
During her later years and as the gardens were nearing completion, Mabel Choate developed a plan with The Trustees of Reservations to preserve the property as a place to be enjoyed by all. In 1958, upon her death, Naumkeag was bequeathed to The Trustees in its entirety – from furniture, ceramics, and fine arts to garden tools – to help preserve the “aura of goodness and gracious living” for current and future generations to enjoy. Since, Naumkeag has become one of the organization’s most significant and treasured cultural landscapes.