Sunday, September 25, 2011


Among the most iconic of all American garden scenes, the Blue Steps at Naumkeag.

From Gilded Age to Art Deco, Mabel Choate and landscape architect Fletcher Steele made this classic American garden by freely adapting influences from cultures around the world--England, China, particularly Renaissance Italy.Though rooted in the Picturesque tradition, Naumkeag broke new ground in several ways, introducing large earthworks as a major landscape element for the first time in the U.S., and making Art Deco a significant garden style. Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele avoided pastiche by staying true to the sense of place, to the low, misty, magical Berkshire Mountains, and by using simple, ready-to-hand materials like concrete, brick, wood, and paint. No imported marbles or recreations of European gardens here ...

Below, the entrance to the house, a building of subdued opulence, designed by Stanford White, only for seasonal summer use, and located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, near Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, not at the shore in Newport. The Choates bought the land and fell in love with the mountain views early in the life of the family, and their love of this place and its distant views was an important influence on the garden that would come to be, assuring the house would be sited high, and the gardens would surround the house on high terraces.

Below, the Top Lawn and terrace, behind the house, with a view of the mountains. Making a garden must have been a challenge on this steep slope. Frederick Law Olmstead, who they first consulted, told them to build at the bottom of the hill. They had visited the land and picnicked there for several years, and were not willing to give up the views. So they promptly hired another architect.

Renaissance Italy haunts this garden. The Choates named this view at the end of the Top Lawn the Perugino View.

A glance toward the South Lawn, just before entering the Afternoon Garden, Fletcher Steel's first design at Naumkeag ...

 ... the Afternoon Garden functions as an outside room ...

 ... with (Italy again) painted Venetian gondola poles (though of simple materials, reclaimed from Boston Harbor, carved and decorated with paint) ...

 ... a pergola ...

 ... a boxwood parterre ...

... and Mabel Choate's sleeping porch, like a treehouse, overlooking the garden ...

... a formal, yet quiet, intimate, tranquil place ...

The Pyramid Steps are an unobtrusive and beautiful transition, leading from the Afternoon Garden to a runnel of water sloping away to the iconic Blue Steps (we'll get to that later) and the South Lawn, which stretches off into the distance.

Looking back toward the house, the South Lawn is defined by a double hemlock hedge on one side and a curving line of globe locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Umbraculifera') in the other. It provides a long, sunny walk ...

... to the Pagoda ...

The South Lawn is one of the earliest examples of use of an earth work for landscape purposes in the U.S. By chance, Mabel Choate stopped a fleet of trucks carrying loads of earth, bought it on the spot, and had it dumped in the rough area that was to become the South Lawn.

Research conducted for the application nominating Naumkeag as a National Historic Landmark notes that "here, Steele was inspired by the shape of distant mountain silhouettes and by the experiments of modern sculptors such as Brancusi. It was the earliest modern 'earthwork' recorded in this country and the progenitor of many later experiments with abstract modeling of earth forms. Steele wrote, '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.'"

Fletcher Steele used the material "to create an abstract form in the manner of modern sculpture, with swinging curves and slopes which would aim to make their impression directly, without calling on the help of associated ideas, whether in nature or art." The National Historic Landmark application documents the influence of this work on earth artist Robert Smithson and landscape architects such as A. E. Bye, Rich Haag, and George Hargreaves.

 A beautifully designed reference to the Italian water steps of the Renaissance and even earlier Islamic gardens, the Water Runnel leads from the Afternoon Garden and Pyramid Steps ...

... to the Blue Steps. Though the design concept comes directly from history, Steel's success, perhaps genius, was his adaptation of the design using modern materials--a blaustrade of simple metal tubing painted white, concrete steps and ramps, blue painted niches--that make it Art Deco of the highest order, and more closely akin to a Hollywood or Busby Berkeley stage set, than to Renaissance Italy ... not to mention the white birches, which are pure New England.

Though at the bottom of the steps there is nothing but grass.

This is quite a disappointment. After this brilliant descent, the bare expanse of grass with a few diseased fruit trees seems like an unkind trick. Mabel Choate had her cutting and vegetable garden here, but I doubt it could have provided a satisfying conclusion to the journey down the steps. A creative solution would be for the Trustees of Reservations, who own and operate this extraordinary property, to commission a modern design, or hold a competition, to complete this work.

Otherwise, visitors will have to resort to cropping out the lawn at the bottom of their photos, as I did. But only this piece of the garden seems unfinished. Back at the top of the steps are other pleasures ... such as the misty landscape views ...

... which could indeed be the background in a Renaissance painting.

The Rose Garden is another Fletcher Steele tour de force (not because of the roses; almost anything would look better than those gangly, bare sticks), but because of the striking abstract, geometric design, best viewed from above.

Here is a borrowed photo from Todd Haiman's Landscape Design + More, which gives a better view. (Do click the link to Haiman's blog for a fascinating and more detailed account of Naumkeag.)

Though the most notable parts of the garden only began when Mabel Choate inherited the property, and began a 30 year friendship and collaboration with Fletcher Steele, Nathan Barrett developed the original design for Naumkeag's terraced gardens in the 1880s.

Barret was responsible for some of the more traditional parts of the garden including the Arborvitae Walk, shown below, which leads ...

... to the Evergreen Garden.

Here we find a different spirit entirely, more traditional, certainly less playful than the rest of the garden, nothing modern at all.Tranquil, certainly, though the symmetry is marred by the slightly misplaced, or mispruned, Thujas on the right.

But a glance to the right reveals Fletcher Steele again, with a terraced approach to the Chinese Garden. I admit this isn't my favorite, though I find the subtle terrace plantings and the cloud motif of the large stones embedded in brick to be masterful.

And the moon gate. Beckoning, dramatic, intriguing, mysterious, stalwart, magical. It leads directly to the front of the house, completing the high circuit of gardens that is Naumkeag.


  1. James,
    It has been a dozen years since I was there. Thanks for a comprehensive tour. Fletcher Steele designed a few gardens here in Peterborough that, sadly, no longer exist. I love those steps. I think you are right about the lawn below. A competion would be an excellent idea.

  2. I would love to see this garden in person. I just read the history of it recently in a book about great American gardens and it was fascinating. So much of this garden reminds me of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington. I wonder if he was influenced any by Farrand or vice versa.

  3. Michael,
    Interesting that Steele designed gardens in Peterborough. He seems to have not really been recognized for the measure of his accomplishment in his lifetime. It's a subject deserving of further study. Yes, wouldn't a design competition be exciting? Though I imagine there would be many political obstacles to that ever happening.

  4. Phillip,
    I had seen images of those famous Blue Steps for decades. They're such an icon, I had no idea what to expect from the garden as a whole, but it's a really special place, and quite iconoclastic in its subtle way. I don't know of any connection between Farrand and Steele, but it's an intriguing idea.

  5. I've never realized that there is only lawn at the bottom of those steps. I always presumed they led to a reflecting pool, which seems to be the obvious missing conclusion. From your pictures, there just seems to be a sense of incompletion about the whole garden. It would benefit from the hand of a visionary, dedicated gardener and an injection of money.

  6. James, you can see how the amazing views would inspire great efforts. My favourite element is the runnel, though, perhaps because moving water is so rarely seen in gardens.

  7. The moon gate seems to only offer an inspiring view IN. Out shows road and parked cars?? But the Art Deco steps are memorable - since this is the first time I've seen or heard of them.

  8. Susan,
    Although the bottom of the steps is a disappointment, the garden as a whole does very much have a sense of completeness. I was very impressed with its unity and cohesiveness in spite of the "missing" piece.

  9. Faisal,
    I may agree with you about the runnel. It's made of brick slightly offset vertically to give a secure walking surface, but that detail also gives it a beautiful "rhythmic" surface texture. The workmanship and simplicity of design are inspiring.

  10. Diana (Elephant's Eye), the view out should be of the house. Unfortunately, land uses change with the times, and now the view is of parked cars. But the view in is certainly a winner. The steps are such a famous image here, I had assumed they were known all around the world.

  11. You said the magic word -- "Brancusi." One you said that the whole place took on a different meaning, feel, and visual interpretation for me, in a way it never has before. Thank you.

  12. I'm glad the name opened the experience of the garden for you. That influence is rather subtle, but Fletcher Steele seems to have been very aware of the artistic developments of his day. I imagine his reputation will grow over time. And he was lucky to have had a "patron" who was open to his experimentation.

  13. Can you hear me now?

    It seems to have been something fishy with IE9 and its cookies setting, which I just upgraded to. Now I am working out kinks, but am glad I can comment on your blog.

  14. Glad you worked the problem out. I use Firefox.

  15. Les, of A Tidewater Gardener, couldn't post yesterday and sent me this email. I'm posting it for him, along with my response, because I think he makes an interesting point about the Blue Steps. I wonder if others might agree with him.


    I have tried twice now to leave a comment on your blog about Naumkeag. I am not sure if it is a Google issue or if you or I have something set wrong.

    Anyway, I have read about, seen pictures and admired this garden for some time now and wish I could visit one day. However, I have some sort of aversion to the blue step feature, I think it's the railings. I know they echo the birches, and I know how much other people like the design, but I just don't like this one feature of Naumkeag and can't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps its just my inner Philistine coming out.


    please visit my blog at:"

    And my response:

    "I do like the blue steps but I think I can see your point. In some respects. I can see how you might find it discordant with the rest of the garden. I mean it's "Busby Berkeley" Broadway show effect. I experienced something of the same thing, I think because the image of the steps is so very familiar that I probably couldn't really see them. I had this powerful preconceived image in my head. I know you're very attuned to visual things, particularly natural/naturalistic things (landscapes, etc.), so you may have a clearer eye about this. It's an interesting idea and I wish your comment could have been posted. (Maybe I'll post it for you.)

    Or maybe we just have different taste and as the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste (de gustibus non disputandum est).

    Thanks for sending the email. You raise a very interesting point."



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