Naumkeag: Tree Peonies and a Stanford White House
Apologies to Tolstoy, but, happy or not, rich families in any given milieu tend to be a lot alike—similar politics, values, virtues, blindspots. In contrast, Joseph Hodges Choate (1832 - 1917) and his wife Caroline (nee Sterling) are interesting because they were not quite standard-issue for their day. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Choate was with a white shoe New York firm and, like his partners, summered with his family in the Berkshires. They stayed at the Red Lion Inn, then in various rentals, before finally commissioning Stanford White to build a 44-room shingle-style cottage. The couple named their new home Naumkeag, after the Native American name for the Salem, MA region, Choate’s boyhood home.
Despite having successfully argued against the income tax before the Supreme Court in 1895 (“The act … is communistic in its purposes and tendencies, etc…..”), Choate (left, in a caricature from an 1899 Vanity Fair) was a reformer who helped bring down Tammany Hall and was one of the civic visionaries behind The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. He was also a statesman, serving from 1899 - 1905 as ambassador to the Court of St. James. His wife, an artist known for her chilly reserve, was a closet feminist firebrand whose subtle but relentless arm-twisting resulted in the founding of the Brearley School and later Barnard College, to this day Manhattan’s premier all-female educational institutions.
Of the Choates’ four children, only one of each gender survived to adulthood. Naumkeag eventually went to their daughter Mabel, who was single when her parents died and would remain so for the rest of her life. Like the elder Choates, Mabel was a keen horticulturist, who forged a 30-year creative partnership with the distinguished landscape designer Fletcher Steele. Curiously, her sense of aesthetic adventure abandoned her at Naumkeag’s front door. Inside, she remained immune to fashion—no drop of paint ever touched Stanford White’s gloomy interiors, though the trend for dark woodwork was long gone well before Mabel died in 1958. Apart from one stylish guest room, the house feels more comfortably thrown together than “done.”
Yet, under Steele’s influence, Mabel was an artsy adventuress out-of-doors. She requested some stairs to make the cutting garden more accessible. The blue staircase (top photo) that Steele delivered is among the most famous private garden features in the world. In 1936, she returned from a trip to Asia, her head swimming with images of the gardens she had seen there. A Chinese garden complete with temple promptly arose on Prospect Hill Road. She wanted a cool place to sit outside the west-oriented house as the sun set: Steele proposed an afternoon garden with a complex box topiary centerpiece. In the rose garden, which seems to have been designed to be viewed from overhead, shrub roses are mere accents to the main event—a rhythmic pattern of crushed granite paths-that-go-nowhere undulating through the closely clipped grass. And then there are the tree peonies, another China-trip take-away, and the object of this weekend’s special tour: Steele arranged a lavish collection of them in swathes along tiers of earth held back by dry stone walls. Mabel kept meticulous notes in her garden diary on each specimen.
Naumkeag does not officially open until Memorial Day Weekend, but by then the tree peonies will be done blooming. So by popular demand, both the house and garden will be open this weekend for a special tree-peony tour.
5 Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge
May 21 & 22; 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Guided tour by landscape designer Karen Streefter, Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
Admission: $15/adults, free/children under 13 and members of the Trustees of Reservations