The Legacy of Mabel Choate in the Berkshires: Naumkeag and Mission House

EVENTS > SYMPOSIA

FALL 2019 SYMPOSIUM IN REVIEW

During the Trust’s fall symposium in the Berkshires, members received an in-depth look at the collecting and preservation legacy of one of the region’s most influential inhabitants, Mabel Choate. One of four children of New York City businessman and lawyer Joseph Hodges Choate and his wife, Caroline Dutcher Sterling Choate, Mabel was an active preservationist, horticulturist, traveler, and collector of art. Her strong presence is felt today in the Berkshires through two particularly important venues that she endeavored to enhance and preserve throughout her life: Naumkeag and Mission House.

The most noteworthy of the two properties is undoubtedly Naumkeag. A trip to Stockbridge is incomplete without a visit to the Choate family’s sprawling summer estate at which this grand, 44-room country house, sits at its peak. Although the family was planted in New York City for most of the year due to Joseph’s successful career and the Choates’ many social obligations, Stockbridge served as their summer retreat.

The architect Stanford White of the New York City-based firm McKim, Mead & White completed the shingle-style design in the fall of 1886. While the architecture alone is stunning, the interiors exhibit the interests and lifestyle of the Choates. From the encyclopedic library to the smaller guest rooms, each space is filled with artifacts, antiques, and family treasures from their excursions both near and far. Chinese export porcelain, textiles, and furniture that the family accumulated are proudly exhibited throughout the home.

The many and varied landscapes on the estate perfectly capture the collaborative efforts of Mabel and Fletcher Steele, a partnership that lasted nearly 30 years. Steele, who is often regarded as America’s first modern landscape architect, was introduced to Mabel at a meeting for the Lenox Garden Club in 1926. This friendship enabled Mabel to combine her many passions, such as collecting, historic preservation, and gardening (see pp. 10–13).

In 1927, Mabel took on a new challenge when she purchased the historic Mission House, built c. 1739 for Reverend John Sergeant, an Anglican Missionary. At the time of her acquisition, the home was in derelict condition. Comparatively modest to Naumkeag, Mission House follows a standard Georgian center-chimney plan, with a parlor to the left and a kitchen to the right. Choate and Steele collaborated once again to revive this historic home.

Choate began work on the house and amassed antiques from the period of Sergeant’s life to display inside the dwelling. She also actively acquired materials from descendants of the Stockbridge Mohicans to illuminate the home’s multi-layered story.

She enlisted Steele’s help to work on the property’s gardens and outbuildings. The spaces were designed to reflect his vision of a colonial garden, with George Washington’s estate Mount Vernon serving as inspiration. Drawing from ideas in his book Design of a Little Garden, which was published only a few years earlier, Steele placed the outbuildings to create a private retreat. He allocated spaces for outdoor work such as churning butter, preparing preserves, and chopping wood. These areas were further complemented by rows of vegetables and fruit trees along with flowers and bushes laid out for aesthetic contrast.

In October 1948, the Stockbridge Mission House Association, Inc. gifted the house to The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), and Mabel donated an additional endowment for its care. Ten years later, Mabel bequeathed Naumkeag in its entirety to TTOR as well. Those who spent time with us in the Berkshires are now familiar with this impressive non-profit organization whose mission is to “preserve, for public use and enjoyment, properties of exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value in Massachusetts.” TTOR’s talented staff has ensured Mission House and Naumkeag are cultural touchstones of the region that provide visible and tangible links to the Choates and the history of the Berkshires. The Trust is particularly grateful for the efforts of Mark Wilson, Cindy Brockway, and Christie Jackson of TTOR for guiding us through these historic properties during the symposium. The continued popularity of the two sites ensures that the Choate legacy in the colored hills of the Berkshires will be felt for generations to come.

A print version of this article was published in The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, one of our most popular member benefits. Join today!

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