STOCKBRIDGE -- "The chief vice of gardens is to be merely pretty," landscape architect Fletcher Steele once said.
At Naumkeag, the summer home of the Choate family here, Steele (1885-1971) soared straight through prettiness and entered a realm of giddy whimsicality. The result is one of the most endearingly eccentric landscapes open to the public.
True, the shingle-style mansion, designed by the youthful Stanford White in 1885, is homey and quietly elegant, with its well-appointed interiors still intact. Joseph Hodges Choate (1832-1917), who commissioned it, was a charming New York lawyer and diplomat who chalked up a place in history by helping to bring down Boss Tweed and rallying America to join the Allies in World War I. These attributes and associations, along with its scenic location in the Berkshires, make Naumkeag a worthy destination. But the elegant, playful garden rooms opening out to grand mountain views are what people come to see.
Steele shares the credit for his masterwork with Mabel Choate (1871-1958), with whom he entered a true collaboration that lasted 30 years. In fact, Steele was at Naumkeag so regularly that Choate kept a room for him there. For Choate, a well-traveled heiress, designing her gardens was a passionate and personal undertaking. A 1947 photo shows her suited up for gardening in a broad-brimmed hat and boots, toting her tools and a folding stool. Gone is the fashionable, slim-faced young lady sketched by John Singer Sargent; this woman is ready for battle.
Choate's father picked out a stunning site for his family's summer home in the early 1880s: a narrow ledge that perched above a valley with a backdrop of dramatic hills dominated by the distinctive curve of Bear Mountain. Although the location captured spectacular sunset scenes, it contained barely enough ground to support the sweeping lawns and broad formal terraces of the estate gardens popular during the Golden Age.
White finished the 26-room, Norman-style gabled mansion in 1886. The Choates brought in landscape architect Nathan Barrett of New York to solve the garden problem, and his graceful, if staid, scheme featured grass terraces linking the house to a lower lawn, a topiary walk, and formal flower beds. A tennis court and a working farm in the valley below the house completed the estate. The farm produced food for the Choates during their summer stay.
As the Berkshires vied with Newport, R.I., and Bar Harbor, Maine, for the summer-home set, Naumkeag hosted typical pastimes for a growing number of high-society neighbors: croquet, tennis, cricket, and golf; elaborate lawn parties; and elegant soirees. In 1897, President and Mrs. McKinley and their entourage dropped by for dinner on short notice. (Two years later, McKinley appointed Choate ambassador to Britain.)
Mabel Choate was 55 when she inherited Naumkeag in 1925, and the house and grounds today reflect her prevailing influences -- her love of China and Italy, which she knew from her travels, and her childlike delight in creating decorative, shrine-like spaces in the gardens. Her mother, Caroline, was a painter who gave art lessons to her children, and her daughter's enjoyment of rich, bright colors shows up in virtually every corner of the grounds.
Soon after inheriting the property, Choate hooked up with Steele, a highly original and artistic landscape architect who was then 40. Together, they set about tinkering with the details of Barrett's design for the grounds, although they left his basic scheme largely intact.
Their first project was the Afternoon Garden, a glittering jewel that could be enjoyed from the second floor of the house or from seats along the shaded edges of the garden. The rectangular space is intimate in scale, bordered with wooden posts -- actually pilings salvaged from Boston Harbor (Steele's contribution) carved and painted in fanciful colors to resemble Venetian gondola poles (Choate's idea). Swags of marine rope as thick as a man's wrist link the poles. A shin-high boxwood parterre, laid out in spirited swoops, frames a dark oval reflecting pool. The illusion is of a bottomless well, but the pool's bottom is a pane of black glass, and the water covering it is only a few inches deep. Lightly splashing fountains, inspired by the Moorish gardens of Spain, add to the atmosphere of shadowy coolness.
A vine-covered arbor against a wall faces the western hills. The view from this vantage point is the subject of a priceless anecdote recounted by Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller in their book "The Golden Age of American Gardens: Proud Owners, Private Estates, 1890-1940" (Abrams, 2000): "The curved and bumpy silhouette of Bear Mountain, which Steele felt was the essence of Berkshire Hills beauty, was obscured by distant trees. He and Miss Choate called in an army of tree men and set up phone communications between garden and woods. With field glasses . . . and martinis in hand, they directed the logging operation -- sometimes as much as twenty feet came off -- until the curve of Bear Mountain was repeated by that of the woodland below."
Curves are very much a theme here. The sinuous sweep of the South Lawn, built by Steele in 1934, emulates the organic forms of modern sculpture. Energetic curves also dominate his rose garden, one of the most-photographed gardens of the era: Ribbons of fine pink gravel snake through a sloping lawn, with clumps of floribunda roses placed along the bends.
Steele's artful curves appear again in the famous Blue Steps, which every student of landscape architecture has seen in at least one lecture. The steps, flanked by a slender white metal railing, descend a western slope through terraced groves of white birches. At the bottom, looking up, you see a stunning surprise: half-moons of deep blue mark each terrace landing, outlined in perfect white arcs of railing. (Legend holds that Choate and Steele spent many hours experimenting with color to get just the right blue, and Choate herself helped wield the paintbrush.)
The railing also opens outward near the bottom of the steps, creating the illusion that the top, at the narrow end, lies farther away than it actually is. A tiny flume of water -- the end of a runnel that begins in the Afternoon Garden -- trickles from a spout at the bottom. Steele finished the steps in 1938, and they caused a sensation not only for their bright color, but for the unusual use of industrial materials, concrete and metal -- a hallmark of modernism.
Choate and Steele's last collaboration was the Chinese Garden, which swept away the formal flower beds of the elder Choates' day and replaced them with a miniature temple set on a packed-earth terrace. The garden is shaded by a grove of gingko trees, underplanted with the elephantine leaves of butterbur. The temple, designed by Steele, sports a brilliant tiled roof of cobalt blue and is guarded by a pair of pug-nosed dragons.
This is all theatrical fun, and the garden's entrance is perfect preparation: A zig-zag path leads from the driveway to a circular "moon gate" in a wall of brick and fieldstone, framing a tantalizing slice of the temple garden. The right-angle turns in the path keep out demons, as Chinese legend holds that demons can move only in straight lines.
Many other delights await at Naumkeag, a land of make-believe created by two sophisticated adults. By the time you depart, it will be hard not to feel like a child forced to leave a fantastic secret clubhouse. The good news is that you get to come back, and you can bring friends.
Jane Roy Brown is co-editor of AMC Outdoors magazine.