On the last day of my road trip, before I headed home to Salem, I visited a house named for Salem: Naumkeag, the Stockbridge summer cottage of Joseph Hodges Choate (1832-1917). The native Americans called the land encompassing Salem Naumkeag, and the Salem-born Choate, a prominent New York attorney who took on Boss Tweed and served as Ambassador to Great Britain before World War I, named his country house for his native city. I had never been to this western Naumkeag, but I had heard great things about it for many years, and I was not disappointed.
Naumkeag (1885), an early commission of Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White, Stockbridge, Massachusetts: rear, front & detail views.
Actually, that’s putting it mildly: I loved this property, which surprised me. I grew up in a house in southern Maine not dissimilar from Naumkeag: a shingle-style Victorian with dormers, porches, and a big hallway. And while I love this house, when I moved away and grew up I always sought more straightforward houses for myself : Federal and Greek Revival houses with clean lines and open facades in which squares are more important than curves. Naumkeag is very curvy; it’s the antithesis of my beloved Federal style, but it is so perfectly placed in its setting that it cannot fail to charm. I quickly realized that it was not just the house, but the house and its surrounding landscape, that was captivating me. Mr. Choate and his wife Caroline had summered in the Berkshires for many years before they purchased the land on which they built their summer house, and they knew just where they wanted to build it–on a bluff overlooking a pastoral valley very close to the village of Stockbridge, where terraced and sloping gardens could surround the house and link it to that same valley below.
Naumkeag today, house and grounds tied together in a series of interior and exterior “rooms” which provide vistas that look both inward and outward, is not only the result of the collaboration of Mr. and Mrs. Choate and their consultants but also of another extraordinary partnership, between their daughter Mabel and the amazing landscape architect Fletcher Steele (1885-1971). Mabel met Steele just before she inherited Naumkeag in 1929, and they embarked on a 30-year joint endeavor which made Naumkeag even more magical. All the details–structural, horticultural, practical, were overwhelming! I could write a separate post on just how water was moved from place to place.
Fletcher Steele’s work at Naumkeag: the “afternoon garden”, forged steps and “runnel” leading down to the famous, iconic Blue Steps. My photograph is followed by one by Carol Highsmith (1980; Library of Congress), obviously a much better photographer.
Those blue steps: how amazing. Art Deco in a “Victorian” garden (or is it?) and also an interesting juxtaposition of beauty and practicality; after all, they exist to channel water down to the lower perennial garden. The use of the azure blue, carefully chosen by Steele after much deliberation apparently, brings the sky down to the ground. Here’s charming photograph of Steele and Mabel on the blue steps before they were blue:
Back to Salem, the first Naumkeag, where a statue dedicated to Joseph Hodges Choate marks one of the entrance corridors into the city.