Public gardens reflect private personalities
LENOX — “In the summer New York was the only place in which one could escape from New Yorkers,’’ Edith Wharton once quipped. Wharton would have known: She was one of the wealthy New Yorkers who took to the hills and the shores of New England in summer, probably bumping into city friends at every stylish soirée.
Like other well-heeled members of her generation at the turn of the 20th century, the author transplanted her lifestyle to her country retreat. In Lenox, overlooking Laurel Lake, she built an elaborate mansion and gardens, all cared for by a staff. She called it The Mount.
The American Renaissance sculptor Daniel Chester French settled on neighboring Stockbridge as the site for his summer home and studio, Chesterwood. Just down the road was lawyer and diplomat Joseph Choate’s family vacation home, Naumkeag. It was Choate’s daughter, Mabel, who moved an 18th-century building called Mission House into the center of Stockbridge and commissioned a Colonial Revival garden around it. Stockbridge also benefited from the generosity of Irene and Bernhard Hoffman, who donated 15 acres to the Lenox Garden Club in the 1930s. The parcel, artfully planted and groomed over time, became the Berkshire Botanical Garden.
Today these patrician properties are open to the public, and their legacy of high design extends to the landscape. This sultry summer has pushed New England’s short-lived flower gardens to bloom weeks ahead of schedule, and the heat has not been kind to anything now flowering. Fortunately, these gardens were conceived by extraordinary designers who did not rely on flowers alone. With their woodland trails, intimate gardens, fountains, shady nooks, and daydream views, these landscapes have the power to delight the eye and lift the spirit. Events and exhibits at each of the gardens continue throughout the season.
The Mount “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist,’’ Wharton (1862-1937) wrote in a letter describing the Italianate garden rooms below the palatial house, both of which she designed herself. Although her niece, the accomplished landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand, consulted on the gardens, the well-traveled Wharton, who wrote about Italian gardens, was an expert in her own right.
The organization that now owns The Mount, fittingly called Edith Wharton Restoration, started restoring the three acres of formal gardens more than a decade ago. Each of the interconnected spaces has a distinct character. The contemplative Lime Walk — a promenade lined with linden trees — links the Walled Garden, an intimate, sunken space, on one end, and the open, sunny Flower Garden on the other. A long central staircase from the house to the gardens cuts through broad grass terraces sculpted into the steep hillside. On a side slope of the hill, ferns and shrubs sprout in an unusual rock garden with grass steps.
Chesterwood French (1850-1931), whose first commissioned work, “The Minuteman,’’ stands in Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord, is best known for creating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. At his hilltop country home and studio near Stockbridge, French applied his talents to the art of landscape design, laying out a picturesque circuit walk that begins and ends in his formal Studio Garden. This sunny, open space in front of the studio consists of two wide, perpendicular paths.
A flower border runs the length of the main gravel walk, which passes a vine-covered pergola with a panoramic view of the valley and ends at a pair of white columns at the edge of a hemlock forest. Perpendicular to the main path, the grassy Hydrangea Walk is named for its allée of delicate trees. Both walks end with an invitation to explore the woodland circuit trail, which links a series of destinations: a sprawling ledge, clearings with benches, and scenic overlooks. Within the deep forest shade, these surprise attractions — embellished by the current exhibit of contemporary outdoor sculpture — give the journey delight and mystery.
Naumkeag Layered with the work of three notable landscape architects and one free-spirited owner, this property is like a mountainside jewel box with secret compartments opening to astonishing views of the valley below. The most recent overlay, created between the late 1920s and the late 1950s by the landscape architect Fletcher Steele, in cahoots with owner Mabel Choate, is a long drink of whimsy spiked with moments of grandeur.
Witness the gaily painted pagoda-like structure that holds a chunk of tufa stone, set in a garden ringed by giant clam shells. And it’s hard to conjure a more beguiling retreat than the Afternoon Garden, with its boxwood parterre outlining small fountain pools and a pergola facing a panoramic valley view, loosely enclosed by Steele’s take on Venetian gondola poles, linked by swags of nautical rope. The Blue Steps, famous by themselves, descend a steep slope through a grove of white birches.
In the rose garden, ribbon-like beds ripple through a grassy enclosure. Choate’s collection of Chinese antiquities, including an entire temple, furnishes the Chinese Garden. It’s due for restoration, but worth at least a peek through the majestic moon gate.
Mission House In the late 1920s, Choate moved this 1741 house, built by a missionary to the Mohicans in the days when Stockbridge marked the Western frontier, to Main Street from its original hillside location. After restoring the building, she opened it to the public, in 1930, as a museum honoring her parents. She hired Steele to design gardens suitable to the period. He created a series of compact, interconnected spaces, guided by his understanding of the chief principles governing Colonial garden design: use and beauty. Brick-edged paths separate rectangular beds for flowers, vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees.
Like the arrangement of artifacts in the house, the intimately scaled gardens are charming in themselves, even though their abundant flowers and decorative touches reflect Colonial Revival imaginings of 18th-century American life, rather than the more utilitarian gardens of that time.
Now that 80 years have passed, it is easier to see that these fanciful embellishments embody the yearning for an idyllic past.
Berkshire Botanical Garden The naturalistic gardens laid out on these 12 acres in Stockbridge are designed to display plant collections and to educate visitors. But you don’t need to study the labels to enjoy the gardens on this gently sloping hillside. A circuit path takes visitors through 25 garden areas in and around a central lawn, which is punctuated by mature shade trees. Ample shade and seating take the sting out of hot days. Because many of the gardens are composed of trees and shrubs as well as flowers, the landscape feels as integrated as those at the neighboring country estates.
Plant collections range from tiny sedums and alpine plants to towering beeches. In late summer, a lavish daylily border showcases varieties in every color that can be wrung from the original orange and yellow flowers — black-red to salmon pink to exuberant lemon-yellow. Two current art exhibitions show contemporary artists’ takes on the garden shed and bench, respectively, and these objects are tucked throughout the gardens.
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.