A Touch of Nonsense

Steele had been exposed to the art moderne style in 1925 at the Paris Exposition. Throughout his tenure at Naumkeag, he experimented with modernist principles and incorporated their stylized features into the gardens and landscape. The scale and complexity of his artistic vision is remarkable given the steep, rocky site and the fact that much of the work was done by hand. One project led to another as time, travels, and inspiration allowed. The South Lawn is a case in point. In her garden memoirs, Mabel Choate wrote:

The Southern Lawn from the Afternoon Garden down to the Linden Walk had never been satisfactory … a steep hill, hard to walk on and looking curiously out of place with the more finished appearance of the rest of the place. We talked about how to improve it and Mr. Steele suggested various slopes and terraces but nothing was decided on.  One day when I was walking [on Prospect Hill Road] a long line of trucks filled with earth passed me. … I asked the driver where they were coming from, and where they were going. “Oh”, he said. “Mrs. So and So is building an addition to her house and we are going to the Village Dump.” Horrified, I asked if I could buy it. “Sure,” said he –“50 cents a load.”

While the driver waited she quickly telephoned Steele who instructed her to buy it and place it on the south lawn. 

… soon there was a high wall of dirt all the way up to the Afternoon Garden. As we were busy with other work just then, there it stayed for two or three years, much to the mystification of our neighbors; but we did not care how it looked as we were so thrilled thinking of future plans.
Between 1933 and 1937 Steele moved the massive wall of dirt to create an abstract form with swinging curves and slopes inspired by the silhouettes of the distant mountains and by the experiments of modern sculptors such as Brancusi. In a letter to his sister, Steele describes what he hoped to achieve at Naumkeag with the South Lawn and the place in its entirety.

The vital importance of curving form which was begun on the south lawn here at Naumkeag generated by the curve of Bear Mountain beyond … was a satisfactory experiment. So far as I know it was the first attempt that has ever been made to incorporate the form of background topography into foreground details in a unified design.

In addition to modern art, Steele and Choate drew upon their foreign travels for ideas and inspiration. In 1935, Miss Choate traveled to China with the Garden Club of America and subsequently to Korea. Throughout her voyage, she collected Oriental treasures with which to embellish her estate.

From the time we reached San Francisco on our way to Japan I began to buy Chinese sculptures. … These I had shipped to Mr. Steele in Boston, thinking that as he was a professional architect, he would know how to deal with them, and so it was. When I got home to Stockbridge they were all dotted about on the lawn …

Although Choate was clearly pleased with the result, Steele wrote that she did not guess at “the shudders of her professional landscape advisor whose duty it was to make them feel at home on a New England hillside.”

Later in the summer, Ralph Adams Cram, the great architect, came with Mr. Steele to see the place and one day when we were out in the garden he said: “Miss Choate, do you mean to say you are going to leave all these Oriental sculptures standing around your Victorian house?” “Certainly,” I said: “The old sea captains were always bringing back Chinese treasures.” “Well,” he said, “it’s an outrage. You should build a Chinese House and place them properly.” – an idea that Steele heartily endorsed. … Of course I caught their enthusiasm and very soon work was begun.

Foo Dogs, lions, a marble Emperor’s stone from the Old Summer Palace at Peking and plantings were all incorporated into the garden design providing a spiritual oasis. Numerous Oriental trees and plants enhance the garden. Pink brick walls, reminiscent of those in the Forbidden City surround the garden and there is a zig-zag

Devil’s screen providing an entrance. The temple was constructed two years later and sited to provide a magnificent mountain view. As Steele said, “All of Naumkeag and the landscape beyond will be like the unfolding of a seashell whose nucleus is the Chinese Garden itself.”

Although Steele publicly stated that the Chinese Garden “was built to bring a recollection of the atmosphere and appearance of places seen in China” his biographer reveals that he wrote privately to his sister: “Of course it is no more Chinese than an old parlor in Salem filled with Chinese objects.” Choate’s enthusiasm was unflagged. In a letter to Steele, she wrote: “I have just been out and seen the Temple, and it really is perfectly grand!”

The spirit of their creative problem solving is most perfectly captured in one of Naumkeag’s most iconic features: the Blue Steps. In 1938 Mabel Choate requested that Steele build her a set of steps so that she could gain easy and safe access to her cutting garden at the base of the hill. The steep and slippery terrain was something that she said she “could not stand another minute”. In recounting the event, Choate said, “Little did I realize what I was in for as he returned with a plan of steps so easy and attractive that I could not resist.”

Steele framed a traditional water staircase in industrial pipe and concrete, juxtaposing the mechanical curves of Art Deco with the lithe forms of white birch. His design made a bold and visually stunning statement and wittily addressed the tension between art and nature that had preoccupied landscape architects for the first half of the twentieth century.

As always, this project was collaboration. In the beginning there were some minor problems with concrete leaks. Steele wrote:

I will bring the Smooth-On [a cement grout] the next time I come as there is no use letting Mr. Crighton [the caretaker] think that that is still another job that I am putting on him. It is supposed to be recreation for you and me.

Indeed, it provided a good deal of recreation, and selection of the correct colors occupied much of their time when Steele went to Naumkeag. Mabel Choate wrote that summer:

Speaking of the blue steps, I must tell you we have painted the railing with one coat, but are holding off doing the second until you come, as I do not think it is quite the right color. ... I tried to match the birch bark but it looked too pink … . It looks far better with the new paint, and I think it’s going to be lovely.

Steele’s signature design and their joint efforts resulted in one of the world’s most famous 20th-century designed landscapes.

One other idea to which Steele introduced his friend and patron was that of bequeathing Naumkeag to The Trustees. It was something that they discussed deeply and at length and on which they came to share a common vision.

More than 50 years after they were created, the landscapes at Naumkeag still convey their character as garden rooms shaped by the beauty and the brilliance of the Berkshire Hills. All of the principal elements of the estate still remain – the gracious and comfortable residence, the eclectic assemblage of gardens and landscape features, and the stunning mountain scenery. And, if one listens carefully, the laughing echoes and infectious enthusiasm of Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele can still be heard.


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