Fletcher Steele is known to have exclaimed that “the chief vice in gardens is to be merely pretty." With one of landscape design’s most renowned built gestures – "the Blue Steps,"  Steele has turned vice into virtue.   

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

To continue my tour of Naumkeag, we reconveine on the runnel that links the pyramid steps on the upper terrace with the top of the Blue steps.

The concrete stairs are shaded by a luxurious grove of Betula papyrifera (Paper Birches) providing a canopy above the Taxus (yew hedge), native ferns + perennials which provided Mabel Choate a gradual descent to her cutting garden at the base of the hill.  This vaulted Art Deco design uses industrial materials -- cast concrete and painted white pipe which are formed into handrails for the four flights of stairs complementing the natural coloration of the birches.  

The blue coloration of the mini fountain pools underneath each staircase provide an exclamation  and color to the extension of the water flow from the runnel above, which is emphasized sensorially by the sound of tricking water and the reflections within the grottos.

Notice the upright hammered wood logs used as edging for the plant material, then repeated as stone in the mini fountain pool/grotto. (These upright hammered wood logs were also used as the serpentine edging for the Oak Lawn)

Planted at the base, flanking the lower fountain are classic yellow-orange hemerocallis (Tiger lillies) which provide a colorful contrast to the blue fountain/grotto.

Fletcher Steele, Mabel Choate and terrier choosing paint colors! (from

Fletcher Steele, Mabel Choate and terrier choosing paint colors! (from

Rose garden – a modernist design to be seen by Mabel Choate from her second story bedroom windows, the rose garden is best viewed from above. Steele painted the railings purple – he considered this color the least obtrusive. The serpentine lines of gravel wind through sixteen beds of Rosa floribunda.  I have read that these curved lines of gravel (originally pink colored) are reminiscent of common motif in chinese art – the imperial scepter.   In this way Steele attempts to provide a link to the nearby Chinese Garden.

At the center of the evergreen garden is a circular pool surrounded by a hedge of Buxus sempevirens (boxwood), which forms the focal point of this garden.  In late July (sorry, these pictures were taken in very early June!) tall, white spires of Cimicifuga racemosa (snakeroot) and Yucca filamentosa (Adam’s needle) make a striking feature against the background of various evergreens.

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

If you tour the gardens you typically approach the Chinese Garden by climbing a staircase from the evergreen garden below, transitioning these series of stairs up to the Chinese Garden which has high brick/stone walls, seemingly representative of a Forbidden Palace. Entrance into the Chinese garden is through a zigzag screen, also referred to as a Devil’s screen.  Once inside are treasures that Mabel Choate collected from travels to the Far East, including a pair of Foo Dogs that guard the Temple stairs. Plant material also have an eastern flavor as Ginkgo bilobas (Maidenhair tree), Acer palmatum (Japanese maples) and various Phyllostachys (bamboo) are generously placed throughout this garden.

You may exit the Chinese Garden through the Moon Gate or… glimpse the Chinese Garden from afar through this portal if you were to arrive directly from the mainhouse.  In sheer brilliance, Steele created an intriguing, sensory journey regardless of one’s direction through the landscape.  This garden essentially completed the landscape at Naumkeag.

Ironically the first garden creation, the Afternoon garden was created with a pair of stone chairs that client and designer would relax in. The final creation, which was the Chinese Garden has a pair of wicker chairs placed at the top of the Temple in the Chinese garden for viewing purposes.

*unless noted all photos ©ToddHaiman2014



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