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Mabel Choate was a preservationist, a horticulturalist, an avid collector of antiquities, and a worldwide traveler. Steele – considered by many to be America’s first modern landscape architect – was her horticultural mentor, and his commission at Naumkeag was the longest of his career. Their letters, journals and reminiscences offer a portrait of an enduring friendship between an artist and patron who shared a passion for plants, an appetite for fun, and a playful approach to garden-making. Together they produced a series of landscapes – from the Afternoon Garden to the Blue Steps – which are icons of American garden design.
Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele met at a gathering of the Lenox Garden Club in 1926. Steele had just published Design in the Little Garden as well as articles in House Beautiful and Country Life in America. Choate had recently returned from a trip to California with the Garden Club of America. She was keen to have an outdoor ‘room’ like those she had seen there and engaged Steele to create it. He recalls the story:
The first call was for a garden in which to be comfortable. An old wall gave protection from the public road, but there was no place near the house to find privacy on a garden chair, out of view of the constant visitors. Besides the slope fell away so quickly from the library door that no chair could rest on four legs.
… I realized, on walking through a colonnade, that I felt well enclosed, yet could see between the columns. So we used some oak piles which had been for seventy-five years under the waters of Boston Harbor. … Their shape must be good, yet a touch of nonsense would do no harm. Why not put Venetian gondola posts, rising out of the sea, up on the top of a hill? Why not follow the color of the trappings seen in medieval manuscripts, which are both strong and gay?
The vibrantly colored Gondola poles were just the beginning, and framed a fanciful setting from which to take in the Berkshire hills.
The garden room needed a giddy carpet. To please both eye and ear, four little fountains, memories of Moorish gardens like the Generalife near Granada, were set to start a pattern. Between them was laid an oval of shining black glass, covered by half an inch of water from the fountains. … The pool looks deep and visitors are startled when they see little dogs walking on the water.
The Afternoon Garden, as it came to be called, elicited enthusiastic response from across the country, including this from the July 1933 Santa Barbara Gardener:
Have you seen the photographs of The [Afternoon] Garden in House Beautiful for July? Did you get a thrill from them? … It is genius. When you have studied these pictures you will have gained … [an] important idea, that garden design can have a large element of fun in it. Mr. Steele says, “Why be solemn in a garden?” and why indeed?
For Choate and Steele, the Naumkeag gardens were an endless source of experimentation, with both plants and visual effects. In an essay entitled “Coal in My Garden”, Mabel Choate recounts the playful exchange she and Steele had regarding the troublesome blue and yellow flowers in the knot garden.
My Afternoon Garden, is my joy and my delight. … But, the one great annoyance of this earthly paradise, has been the Lobelia; which never would behave. … Finally last autumn, after careful observation, I said one day to my Horticultural Mentor: “I know what is the matter with the Lobelia.” “What”, said he? “Why, its feet are too hot. … Couldn’t I put down a slab of stone with holes in it, and let the Lobelia grow through that”? “Certainly not”, said he, horrified; “it would spoil the design.” “Well, how about more paving stones, like the terrace”? “Oh, no, that would never do.” Nothing daunted, I suggested linoleum, painted boards and everything else I could think of; but all in vain; so the subject was dropped. In the following spring, when we were looking at the Garden, the Mentor suddenly said, “I have an idea for the Lobelia.” “What is it,” I cried in great excitement. “Coal”, said he, “let’s put coal around each of the plants; that will keep their feet cool, and would look well besides.”
In addition to the blue black coal, Steele ultimately added chips of pink and green marble, substituting texture and color for plant material.