There is no better Art Deco garden anywhere in the United States than the Blue Steps at Naumkeag. A series of dark blue painted grottos climb up a steep hillside, connected by stairs and placed against a backdrop of white birch trees. A runnel brings water into the grottos and down to the valley floor. Seen from below, the composition is painterly in its harmonious composition. From above, it is a gracious passage down a difficult slope. From any angle, the design of the Blue Steps is almost impossibly beautiful.
“This is a truly American piece of landscape design which moved away from rectilinear Beaux Arts classism towards something much freer,” says Mark Wilson, Statewide Curator of Collections and West Regional Cultural Resources Specialist for The Trustees, a land trust founded in 1891. “It is one of the spaces that gets people to Naumkeag.”
The Blue Steps were a solution to a problem: in 1938, Mabel Choate, who owned Naumkeag, was getting older and needed an easier way to get from the house to her cutting garden, located at the bottom the steep hill. She and her creative partner, landscape architect Fletcher Steele, came up with the transcendent Blue Steps, one of the many gardens the two created together at the Choate family summer home in the Berkshires.
The two met in 1926, when Steele was gaining professional prominence and Choate was about to inherit the Stanford White-designed 44-room “cottage.” After she heard him speak at the Lenox Garden Club, she invited him to visit and look at the Naumkeag grounds. That was the beginning of an inspired partnership that did not end until Choate died in 1956. During their 30-year collaboration, Steele spent so much time at Naumkeag that one of the bedrooms was reserved for his use.
Together, the two made an Afternoon Garden ringed by colorful Venetian gondoliers’ poles, a Linden Walk patterned after the wooded walkways of Germany, a Rose Garden intersected by a serpentine series of paths and a Peony Terrace to display Mable’s collection of Chinese and Japanese tree peonies. They built the Chinese Garden, Steele and Choate’s last garden project, after architect Ralph Adams Cram suggested that Choate needed a place to store the collection of Chinese art she had brought back from her travels.
Now, a 3-year, $2.6 million restoration has brought the Naumkeag gardens back to their original design. Overgrown trees have been replaced, masonry restored, original colors brought back, water systems modernized and fresh plants planted.
“We were able to move forward with confidence because we have over 1,000 pages of Fletcher Steele’s notes,” Wilson says. “We also have letters, invoices, over 200 plans, plus black and white photos. This helped us to pinpoint everything from specific sizes and types of trees to the paint colors on railings. We could go back to 99% of what was there: there was very little guesswork.”
Since opening to the public in 1959, Naumkeag has proven to be a popular destination. More than 15,000 people come from around the world each year to tour and experience the house and gardens.
“People always remark on the fact that they are able to walk around the gardens just as Mabel did,” Mark Wilson says. “An intact garden is so rare.”