Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Naumkeag: Fixing Up a Fine Old Country Cottage for a Mere $4.5 Million











            We drive past the sign for the Naumkeag Estate about a dozen times each summer. It's on the road between Stockbridge, Mass., and Anne's parents' summer cottage, but we haven't stopped in for a visit in decades.
            Last weekend a local newspaper reported that the 46-acre estate has nearly completed a $4.5 million restoration of its gardens. That seemed worth a look. As somebody who's always thinking about garden improvements, I was curious to see what you could for $4.5 million.
            First the history. This Berkshires summer place was built in the 1880s as an escape from New York City by attorney Joseph Choate and his wife, Caroline, described by the estate as an artist and "a women's education activist." The estate was designed by architect Sanford White of the famous firm of McKim, Mead & White. The couple's daughter later donated it to the nation's first land preservation organization, The Trustees of Reservations, in 1958.
            Time wore out some of the graces of this pleasure dome and to restore features such as the "Blue Steps," the Chinese Temple Garden, the Venetian style afternoon garden, and the graceful Linden Walk to their former glory (and to put a new cedar shingle roof on the 40-room 'cottage'), somebody raised a lot of money. In phases, over the last three years, most of the work has been completed. The Chinese Temple Garden, with its divinely blue-tile roof, is still in progress and under wraps.
            But visitors can enjoy the rest of the estate's transformation, and revival, as we did last Saturday morning. We had lots of company, since the story in the Berkshire Eagle had just run that morning.
            The roof of the three-season house (seen in the top photo) is a forest of gables and chimneys.
            The upper terrace, giving views of the estate's lower gardens and open fields, is lined with a double row of strappingly healthy green giant arborvitae. All the new trees on the property, for that matter, looked stunningly happy to be there. They can't believe their luck.
            We walked down to a lower lawn surrounding a pool [photo], with one of those European-style fishy fountain pieces in the center, and some members of our party took their first break on a bench nearby.
            I went off by myself, dropping down another level to transverse a freshly laid out and planted rose garden. The curved, crisscrossing pattern of the pebbled paths was interesting, but the rose plants looked brand new and in need of time to bloom. We have about ten times as many roses blooming in our front yard; so does our neighbor across the street.
            The famous blue stairway distinguished by a steady flow of water streaming down its center -- and back up again, through the marvels of science -- is a tribute to pipes and modern engineering. And, I suspect, fund-raising, since replacing the original hardware and machinery no doubt consumed a big hunk of that impressive restoration budget. You can't capture the effect in a photograph. First, you walk a declining paved beside a narrowly channeled  artificial spring. Then you descent the actual zig-zag stairway, Interrupted by landings, where water gathers in scooped-out, painted grottoes. 
             The blue stairway is the site's signature feature, the jewel in the estate's expansive  grounds. It takes you down to the bottom of a hill where you're greeted by formal plantings, backed by open meadows with their wildflowers and cows; and beyond that the rising profile of the Berkshires, canted toward Monument Mountain.
            I confess to being a little disappointed that the namesake 'blue' was painted concrete rather than stone.
            The formal garden of flowering perennials have a just out of the box look to them as well, though the ranks of delphinium, a gay sky-blue bloomer, and white-flowering tall phlox will some day make a striking wall of color.
            Other highlights include the Venetian style afternoon garden, cool, shady, paved, ornamented by petite formal plantings and brightly colored gondola poles. Its corner piece is an artistic something that looks like square urn ornamented with hieroglyphs.
            Also, moving away from the house, a Chinese pagoda ringed with trees and large sculpted seashells.
            And, the last look for me, the classical but airy linden walk or 'allee,' ringed with young trees, set off by a green bank lit in the August with flowering with purple Echinacea.
             I can't wait to go back next year and see what's been added, what's grown in, and whether they actually do finish the Chinese Temple on schedule.