Three pioneering figures in the history of landscape design within the United States are forever linked for their influence on the modern landscape-- Garrett Eckbo, Dan Kiley and James Rose. While enrolled in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the 1930’s, the three students became disenchanted with and rebelled from the status quo design aesthetic and conventional Beaux-Art teaching of the era. 

However, Fletcher Steele (along with Walter Gropius) were the only designers they respected for their development of modernism within the American garden.  Garret Eckbo remarked that Fletcher Steele was 'the transitional figure between the old guard and the moderns.”

Steele's work is considered by many to constitute the essential link, the transitional figure between nineteenth-century Beaux Arts formalism and the modern landscape design that Eckbo, Kiley and Rose ushered in.

Kiley states 'Steele was the only good designer working during the twenties and thirties, also the only one who was really interested in new things'.  Of the hundreds of gardens Fletcher Steele designed, Naumkeag remains his most written about creation.

map from  Naumkeg website

map from Naumkeg website

Prominent attorney Joseph Choate hired Stanford White of McKim, Mead, White to design his 44 room “cottage” in Stockbridge, Massachusetts that he entitled Naumkeag (the native American name for the indigenous people of Salem, Ma.). Nathan Barrett developed the original design of the landscape, or Master plan. Mabel Choate (Joseph’s daughter) inherited the property and in 1926 began the famous collaboration with Fletcher Steele to create this most famous garden. This collaboration lasted thirty years as Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele became close friends.  Within the mansion there was a bedroom maintained solely for Fletcher Steele, drawing table included.

Legend has it that the two of them (Mabel and Fletcher) were fond of a good martini and would spend many a day in the afternoon garden (which he designed) in a pair of stone chairs (at left in following photo) imbibing and collaborating… eventually they’d come to an agreement on their next project after several martins, and before the day was done Mabel would summon her staff for her checkbook and so began the next project.

Afternoon Garden – this is the first project Steele created at Naumkeag.  The brightly painted Venetian gondola poles around the perimeter of the garden frame views and give the garden a sense of enclosure.  The black obsidian oval within the two scalloped fountains mirror the infinite sky.

Fletcher Steele reclining in stone chair, afternoon garden

Fletcher Steele reclining in stone chair, afternoon garden

As an aside…Choate had originally approached Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to design the master plan. When Olmsted expressed his thoughts that the house should be situated at the bottom of the hill, Choate realized he had approached the wrong designer, as his attraction to this parcel of land was the grand view of the Berkshire Mountains and the valley below from the top of the hill. 

Perugino view – located at the south end of the top lawn, the view was named after the Italian painter Perugino.   The dramatic vista through the gardens and orchard is framed by Monument Mountain.

Of all the grand gestures at Naumkeag, The iconic Blue Steps are perhaps the most celebrated. Simply breathtaking,... every connoisseur of garden design should experience them.  But what I found of special interest are the grand views, the linkage between spaces, the changes of perspective, the intrigue and sensorial journeys you embark upon as you move from one space to the next.

As you leave the Afternoon Garden, you traverse the Pyramid steps down to the Water Runnel or “Rill” which was created to link the fountains of the "Afternoon garden" to "The Blue Steps”

To one’s left is the South lawn where a curving line of Robinia pseudoacacia ‘umbraculifera’ define the west side of the lawn, while along the east side, a double hemlock hedge (Tsuga canadensis) separates the lawn from the driveway above.  The undulating shape of the lawn echoes the shape of the distant mountains.

A cast iron pagoda house is framed by Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), In the first photo of these photos an allee of Linden trees (Tilia occidentalis)  are in the distance, reminiscent of the strolling walks taken in Berlin.

The “Ronde Pointe”-- a low hedge of clipped arborvitae, (Thuja occidentalis) with a long teak bench and intricate patterned brick wall become “a gathering of paths” which lies adjacent to it.

Below the South Lawn is the Oak Lawn, which dominates the terrace.  This tall Oak (Quercus bicolor) that the family would picnic under was one of the primary reasons Joseph Choate purchased this parcel of land.  The vast area and orchards below/beyond the rock outcrops were used as farmland. Crops grown and harvested there supplied the cottage and the New York apartment in off-season.

The Blue Steps,  Rose Garden, Evergreen Garden, Chinese Garden to be continued in my next post…

*unless noted all photos ©ToddHaiman2014