Gardens to See: Naumkeag

Gardeners and others seeking to witness ways to optimize the particulars of a landscape with simple, striking design should add a visit to Naumkeag to their list of gardens to see.  Naumkeag, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was the summer retreat of Joseph Choate and family.  The 44-room ‘cottage’ and surrounding gardens sit high on a hill overlooking Monument Mountain.  The gardens were designed by famed landscape architect, Fletcher Steele, though history hints that Choate’s daughter, Mabel, helped.

My last visit there was in 2004, when I grabbed the photos shown here.  If memory serves me correctly, the view from the road does no justice to the sights you’ll find upon entering the gate.  To the right sits the knot garden patio adjacent to the house.

knot garden      

Straight ahead and to the left, you are greeted with a view of the steps that lead farther down and below to the vista beyond.

view from patio garden      side vista from patio garden

rill steps, top viewThe grass filled steps lead visitors downward toward a series of other gardens and a gradual set of brick steps and a walkway on either side of a water-filled rill.

rill steps Here’s a view of the rill and steps from below.


To the right of the steps, when walking downward, you’ll find a row of tree peonies.  They were not in full bloom when I visited, but they are supposed to be spectacular if you happen to catch the short bloom period.  I did manage to capture two shots of the few flowers that remained during my late May visit.

tree peony-pink tree peony-white

Beyond the tree peonies rests the rose garden and views of the ‘cottage’ above.

looking down on rose garden Naumkeag house from rose garden

From the rose garden, steps lead upward to the other side of the house where the Chinese garden rests.  I’m partial to blues and purples and I adore the lavender rails and chains of the fence and support posts and their echoed hue in surrounding blue and purple perennials.

steps from rose garden

Upon reaching the top of these curved steps you’ll see the brick and stone wall that hides the Chinese garden.  Wildflowers and ferns highlight the porthole from this vantage point.

porthole wall 2 porthole 2

The Chinese garden needed a fair amount of work when I was there – the plantings were sparse – so I took few photos.  But there is a link at the end of my post where you can see Fletcher Steele’s drawing and other Naumkeag photos, including a shot of the Chinese pavilion.

blue steps close up 2 My favorite parts of Naumkeag are the rill steps that guide you down to Steele’s famous blue steps.  You can  traverse down either side of the blue steps. At each landing you’ll be greeted with a pool of water filled from a fountain spouting out of a blue-painted half-circle wall.

The steps are edged with flowing white railings that guide your eye upward while other half-circle rails mirror the shape of the half-circle fountains.  The white rails blend the steps to white of the birch tree trunks that flank either side of the series of steps.  The rails also highlight reflections against the blue from the water below.

Even on the hottest of days, the woodland setting provides a cool place to stop and enjoy the expansive view below.

After reaching the fourth pool and fountain you must, must, must walk down the sloped lawn to get a sight of the blue steps from below.   From there the true genius of Steele’s design becomes obvious – the symmetry, the simplicity, the contrast, the unity.

blue steps lower grass view

The steps and just below become an oasis – there is no view of the house and gardens above.  Look away from the steps and you’re delighted with views of fields below and tree-covered hills beyond. Go to Fletcher Steele’s design drawing of the Naumkeag site for more photos.

I hope to visit Naumkeag again this spring or summer … this time in the company of my favorite photographer.  Finally … wondering why the name Naumkeag?  Find out while perusing Naumkeag visitor information.  Let me know in a comment below whether you figure it out.

13 comments for “Gardens to See: Naumkeag

  1. March 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Great pix – it’s amazing how modern the landscape design looks, even now. I thrill to the rill!

  2. joenesgarden
    March 4, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    That’s one of the most amazing aspects of this design, Cyndy, it has remained relevant. Truely a great design. I’m with you … always drawn to a rill.

  3. March 4, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I’m wondering what small army of gardeners they employ to keep up the grounds…or is it volunteers?

    Christine in Alaska

  4. joenesgarden
    March 4, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    I believe they have both, Christine. But the lawns and most of the gardens needed work. Like I said, the Chinese garden needed a lot of work, and outside of the tree peonies I grabbed photos of, the rest of that planting area wanted for some gardening attention. I think a non-profit oversees the property and like most non-profits, they want for more. But none of this diminishes the sesign genius of Fletcher Steele. I’d hate to see these gardens fall into disrepair.

  5. March 4, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Joene, I didn’t know about this garden, and it looks lovely. I may be out in that part of Massachusetts later in the spring, and I may have to work in a side trip to this garden. Thanks for sharing. -Jean

  6. joenesgarden
    March 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Jean, I really think you will enjoy this garden. While in eastern Mass consider also visiting Edith Wharton’s former estate in Lennox. It’s called The Mount and it will be the subject of a future post here.

  7. March 5, 2010 at 10:48 am

    We visited Naumkeag last summer, on the spur of the moment, and I didn’t realize what it was. We entered – you’re right, the view from the road does no justice – and suddenly we were in the midst of iconic sights I had seen in garden books for years. Your photos and blog tour are wonderful, you really captured the unique essence of that place. It’s so gorgeous,. But I wonder what the natives, the Naumkeags of Salem, would think of it : )

  8. joenesgarden
    March 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Laurrie, You’re the first to mention this … I wonder what the Naumkeags think of Naumkeag also. How did it look last summer? When I was there it needed some TLC. Was the house open when you visited?

  9. March 6, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Joene: I was caught so off guard when we visited, because I didn’t recognize the name, and stumbled into what I’d been seeing for years in my readings. So I didn’t really critique what I saw. The house was open, there were tours, and it all looked gorgeous, exactly as your photos look. Except for the Oriental garden at the top near the driveway, that was a little unkempt. The whole place manages to capture that delicate balance between highly structured maintained scenery and fall-down countryside abandon going to ruin. Beautiful.

  10. joenesgarden
    March 6, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Good to know, Laurrie … thanks. Now I’m looking forward to my visit even more.

  11. March 6, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    This looks like an interesting day trip for me. Thanks…never heard of it before.

  12. joenesgarden
    March 8, 2010 at 10:08 am

    It is worth the trip, fern. The blue steps alone are worth the trip.

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