I recently took part in a great tour in nearby Stockbridge and Lenox, Massachusetts, barely an hour from Central Dutchess County. It’s worth considering for a one-day outing to the gardens of two major Berkshire homes, as well as their interiors.
Many of you have heard of Naumkeag in Stockbridge. The name, I finally discovered, comes from the Indian name for the birthplace of its builder, Joseph Choate: Salem, Massachusetts. It is one of the quintessential country estates of the Gilded Age. Designed by the famous firm of McKim, Meade and White, the house was built in the late 1880’s as a summer home and rural retreat. We would call it a mansion, though the owners called them “cottages” (To me a “cottage” is what my Uncle Harold had at Lake Quassapaug in Middlebury, Connecticut, consisting of a few ramshackle rooms, with no interior walls, no heating, no running water, but the place where all the cousins had a barrel of fun.) Come to think of it, I guess the Berkshire cottages served much the same purpose for the lucky families who lived in them.
A homey place, despite its 44 rooms, Naumkeag must have been a calm place of refuge for this wealthy, but star-crossed family, who lived through the loss of three young children, through various terrible tragedies. It is perched on the edge of 46 bucolic acres of pasture, woodland, and gardens. It is full of the social and political history of its time, and presents a wonderful way to learn about those times.
Although a Harvard law graduate, Mr. Joseph Choate became famous in the New York City world of law as the prosecutor of the Boss Tweed Ring. His distinguished legal career made this Berkshire retreat possible for him and his family.
Many other partners of the firm summered in the Berkshires, and who can blame them. The area remains a huge draw for summer visitors and weekend guests from all over the world, drawn by world-class sites like Tanglewood. How lucky we are to have the area so nearby.
The other famous site in my double-barreled tour is The Mount. It was the summer retreat of the famous American writer, Edith Wharton, and its gardens have been the subject of a recent restoration.
According to the brochure, Lenox, Massachusetts was known as the “Inland Newport” when Edith Wharton built her elegant, dignified country estate there. As you know, Lenox is just a few miles from Stockbridge.
The Mount is a classical white mansion of beautiful proportions, with broad terraces giving out on peaceful views of the surrounding Berkshire countryside. The restoration of this house is an incredible gift to the American people. I became immersed in the history and design of the gilded age, and learned much more than I ever would from a history book of the social and political life of the times.
This, I think, is the real secret of visiting such places. One gets a glimpse of the times in which they were built. This is an era, which will not return, but is worth preserving as part of our heritage. We saw school children absorbing the architecture, the furnishings, the gardens, and thus, perhaps by osmosis, getting a real shot of memorable history.
The brochure calls The Mount an autobiographical house that reflects the life and work of its remarkable creator. Edith Wharton was indeed a remarkable woman. She wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, interior design, and gardens. She was also the author of such best-selling novels as The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth. As far as I’m concerned she would be famous if the only thing she ever did was to write Ethan Frome, one of the most compelling and haunting novels I have ever read. What a treat it was to wander through her elegant home, and see first hand the evidence of this multi-talented woman. Still it was a surprise to me to learn that only 5% of National Historic Landmarks are dedicated to women.
As if I haven’t already given you enough reasons to visit these two intriguing sites, The Mount also has a bookshop, heavily weighted toward the architectural and garden area of books, plus a rather nice assortment of gifts. AND there is the Terrace Cafe, situated on the wide sunny terrace. We had lunch there, consisting of a delicious chicken salad on a croissant, a mesclun salad, and unforgivable cookies. It’s open during all the good-weather months. Check out the website athttp://www.edithwharton.org/.
The tour opportunity to which I referred at the outset is a Combination Garden Tour offered by Naumkeag and The Mount. Led by Jacqueline Connell, an architectural designer and historian, this tour is offered for groups of 15 or more. The beauty of having a guide is that participants can see how European designs, with an American twist, influenced two very different gardens. The Mounts gardens reflect early 20th century classical influence. Naumkeag’s mid-20th century gardens, they say, are more idiosyncratic variations on the European Beaux Arts styles.
To sign up for this special tour, call Cory Hines at The Mount (413) 637-1899, x 109, Even if you don’t have a group of 15, you will enjoy these two special places, as I did.
I must confess that of the two, Naumkeag was my favorite. I loved the views from the house out onto the estate’s farm and orchards far below, and farther yet, to Monument Mountain. I was also taken with the variations and surprises in the gardens, which allowed me to think of the owners as whimsical eccentrics. Put this trip on your agenda for the spring.