STOCKBRIDGE — Naumkeag “cottage” has 44 rooms — that is, if you count only those in the house. Outside garden rooms, designed long before patios and backyard barbecues became a way of life, bring the house outdoors and the outdoors inside.
This summer residence overlooking the Housatonic River Valley was built for Joseph Hodges Choate and his wife, Caroline, in 1885 in the shingle style with a Norman French influence evident in its two steeply pitched towers. Choate was a lawyer and later ambassador to Britain at the turn of the century. Naumkeag is the Native American name of Choate’s hometown, Salem.
All of the furnishings in the house belonged to the family. The Choates’ daughter, Mabel, inherited the property and in 1958 bequeathed the house, its contents, and the land to the Trustees of Reservations.
The Choates had eclectic tastes that included a 16th-century Flemish tapestry, Chinese urns, and an Early American Hadley chest. Joseph Choate’s private study, located in one of the towers, features wallpaper embossed to look like tooled leather. A tea tray sits on the bed in Mabel’s room, and her collection of perfume bottles hangs on the wall.
If the house was Choate’s passion, his daughter devoted her considerable creativity and vision to the gardens. In 1926 Mabel met Fletcher Steele, the well-known US landscape designer, and began a 30-year collaboration transforming the grounds. The Mediterranean-themed Afternoon Garden on the south end of the house shows Steele’s concept of an outside room with the Venetian gondola poles forming a sort of enclosing wall, but with enough space between them to offer tantalizing views.
Looking out toward Bear Mountain, I could see the curves and angles of that distant point in the hillside before me. With a pagoda providing a focal point in the middle distance, my eye followed a curving line of maples off to the left, a linden allee running off into the woods, and a towering white oak outlined by globe locust trees.
In many respects, the Blue Steps are the focal point of a visit to Naumkeag. Designed in 1938, Steele created a series of pools, descending the hill, flanked by a staircase and rows of white birch. Other gardens on the property include a walled Chinese Garden complete with a temple, a formal evergreen garden surrounding a pool, and a rose garden laid out in a serpentine pattern.
Naumkeag is undergoing a five-phase restoration through 2016. These “whimsical and playful gardens are unique,” said Barbara Erickson, president and CEO of the Trustees of Reservations, “but the crisp lines are tired. We need to restore them and return them to their original brilliance.”
About 200 trees were removed from the property to restore the views. “Every time I walk around now, it’s breathtaking,” Mark Wilson, Naumkeag’s curator of collections, said. “You can see all these views that have been gone for years.”
Naumkeag and its gardens, now a National Historic Landmark, “work together,” Wilson said. “They are very much a part of each other.”
NAUMKEAG HOUSE AND GARDENS 5 Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge. 413-298-3239, www.thetrustees.org/naumkeag . Open May 24-Oct. 15 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Members free. Adults $15, under 13 free. Admission includes a garden audio tour.