Landscape architect Fletcher Steele’s designs at the Mission House and Naumkeag were the focus of the final morning of the Fellows’ North American Experience in Massachusetts. Fellows met Mark Wilson, Curator of Collections & West Region Cultural Resources Specialist, and Eric Ruquist, Horticulturist, at the Mission House in Stockbridge. This historic house dates to 1742 and was originally the home of the first missionary to the Mohican Indians.
Mabel Choate, the daughter of Joseph Choate, a leading 19th century attorney, was a preservationist in the 1920s and acquired the Mission House in order to preserve it and its historical significance. The Colonial Revival gardens surrounding the house were among the first projects she and Steele collaborated on and provided a way for Steele to demonstrate his prowess at landscape design.
After this brief introduction to Choate and Steele, the Fellows went up the hill to Naumkeag, the former country estate of Mabel Choate and her family.
The setting could not have been more idyllic: morning at a Gilded Age estate surrounded by the rolling Berkshires and imaginatively designed gardens. Choate and Steele redesigned the gardens at Naumkeag over the course of 30 years and they are in the final stages of being restored to their original glory.
Wilson began our tour at the famous Blue Steps, which were in the first of the five restoration phases. The original brilliant blue paint color of the alcoves was discovered on a piece of concrete tucked away in the recesses of one of Mabel’s desks and has now been restored. Walking up the Blue Steps, we arrived at the reason the Choates purchased the property in 1884: a regal swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) gracing the hillside and providing a perfect picnicking location.
From the Afternoon Garden and its gondola poles to the intricacies of the house itself, the views and artistry involved were spectacular and made it difficult for the Fellows to pull themselves away for their final stop.
Bartholomew’s Cobble, a National Natural Landmark in Sheffield, was the perfect ending for the trip. Julie Richburg, West Region Ecologist, met the Fellows and guided them on a relaxing hike through the cobbles and to the floodplain forest. Ten acres were recently restored from fields to floodplain forest, utilizing saplings from similar areas on site to retain genetic diversity. Julie discussed the challenges of managing non-native invasive plant species and erosion, and pointed out several significant species, including a large American elm (Ulmus americana), a massive cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), and Gray’s sedge (Carex grayi), a threatened plant species.
The Fellows would like to thank all of our wonderful hosts at the various Reservations, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, and Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cindy Brockway, Program Director, Cultural Resources, for helping coordinate the trip, and our chaperones, Longwood Graduate Program Interim Director Dr. Brian Trader and Longwood Gardens Archivist, Judy Stevenson.