Thursday, February 5, 2009

Berkshire Tour September, 2008

In September 2008, thirty nine lucky people traveled to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts with The Landmark Society to appreciate a remarkable concentration of architecture, designed landscapes and other forms of art nestled in the hills. The "hills" are actually ancient mountains that have been eroding for thousands of years.

As the horticulturist for The Landmark Society, I was fortunate to be one of the staff guides on the trip and, although I appreciate all forms of art, my passion of course is horticulture. Plants, gardening, natural and designed landscapes, history of horticulture, and art and science relating to these subjects all fascinate me. So if my descriptions lean towards the green side of a site, at least you know why.

Our first stop was in Stockbridge MA where we went directly to Naumkeag, the summer “cottage” of the Choate family. Joseph Hodges Choate(1832-1917) a prominent New York Attorney and Ambassador to the Court of St. James in England from 1899 to 1905, hired Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White(architects for the George Eastman House) to design his 44-room, Shingle-style house in 1885. All of the original furniture, ceramics and artwork collected by the family are as they were when family members still occupied the home. A guided tour of the interior is a must see.

Just north of the village of Stockbridge, the house is sited on a hill and surrounded by eight acres of terraced gardens, and designed landscapes. The estate also features forty acres of woodland, pasture and meadow with wide, inspiring views of the Housatonic River Valley. However, most interesting are the many garden rooms that our native son (Rochester and Pittsford, NY) Fletcher Steele designed for Joseph’s daughter Mabel Choate between 1926 and 1956. His famous Blue Steps incorporate small pools that are fed water by a brick-lined runnell (channel) that bisects part of the upper lawn. The white railings and blue shell-shaped enclosures above each pool and the steps climbing a steep hill are bordered by an allee’ of white birches. The Rose Garden is unlike any other, with small, oval beds of roses dotting what look like undulating pink gravel pathways carved into the lawn. Then there is the exotic Chinese Garden with its blue-roofed temple, ceramic treasures and Moon Gate. A whimsical stone table and chairs with round, stone cushions, resides under pine trees there. The Afternoon Garden with its boxwood parterre and reflecting pool is enclosed on one side by a grape arbor, and on three sides by a low fence. My favorite elements of the Afternoon Garden are the colorful painted wood gondola poles modeled after similar objects found along the canals of Venice. There is a Tree Peony Terrace, an Evergreen Garden, a Woodland Walk, and an apple orchard. The South Lawn, that leads to a convergence of pathways and a pagoda, was sculpted from many cubic yards of trucked-in soil to echo the shape of the surrounding mountains. A magnificent 300-plus-year old oak tree that inspired the Choates to buy the property still stands today as does a surprising Bigleaf Magnolia. If you plan to visit this property, you should spend at least as much time exploring the landscape as you do the house.

Another property of significant horticultural interest is The Mount, estate of late 19th and early 20th Century author Edith Wharton. She designed her gardens based on her extensive knowledge of European landscapes. Her niece, notable landscape architect Beatrix Farrand also contributed ideas to the landscape. The mansion, built in 1902 was inspired by Belton House a 17th Century English Palladian-style structure. The three acres of formal gardens surrounding the house include the expansive flower garden, planted with colorful perennials, annuals and shrubs, the rock garden with broad grass steps and flowering shrubs, the Italianate walled garden with a rock-pile fountain at its center, and a long allee of linden trees that line a wide gravel promenade parallel to the house. Views of the flower garden from Edith Wharton’s bedroom afford an aerial view of the space that is impressive from a distance as well as from within. There are evergreens such as boxwood and arborvitaes carefully sheared into cones, hedges and balls. Acres of natural woodland that surround the formal gardens and views of distant mountains and Laurel Lake complement the designed landscapes.

Considerable resources were expended to restore the house and gardens. Unfortunately this has put the continued operation of the site as a museum in jeopardy. It is threatened with foreclosure.

A visit to Arrowhead, home of Herman Melville from 1850-1863, afforded a view of Mt. Greylock far in the distance. The mountains which could be seen from the room where Melville wrote Moby Dick are said to have reminded him of the back of a great whale. He named the farm Arrowhead because of the Native American artifacts that his plow turned up when he was working his fields. It was inspiring to stand on Melville’s piazza(porch) and look across a hay field at the mountains knowing that the view was very close to what Melville saw when he lived there. Next to the barn there is an old Chinese chestnut tree. I wondered if it was there when Herman Melville lived on the farm.

On the one rainy day of the trip, we ventured to Hancock Shaker Village. Hancock Shaker Village, Inc. is a private, not-for-profit educational organization. The group preserves and enhances the site and offers programs to teach visitors about the lives of the Shakers who occupied the site until the remaining few moved to a site in Maine. It is accredited by the American Association of Museums and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

To wander the buildings and grounds is to be immersed in the environment that was the Shakers’ who once lived there. The orchards and gardens are overflowing with herbs, fruits, vegetables and plants used for fiber such as flax for linen and corn for brooms. Sheep, goats, pigs, fowl and cows still live in the barns and in the fields. The machine and woodworking shop still runs on an ingenious hydraulic system invented by the Shakers. Their great residence hall is replete with furniture, ceramics, wooden and metal containers and utensils, sleeping rooms, a healthcare facility, meeting rooms, dining rooms, and a room for preparation of herbal remedies and health potions. The Shakers were the first in the country to package seeds in small envelopes for sale. They also successfully marketed their healthcare products throughout the country. It was sad to learn that because of their adherence to the vow of celibacy, the only remaining Shaker community, located in Maine, has only four female members left. Fortunately for us, the Hancock Shaker Village is thriving as a museum and is still there to teach us about these remarkable people.

The other site that we visited on that rainy day was The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. The Clark was founded in1955 by Robert Sterling Clark and his wife Francine and the collection, built upon their personal acquisitions of European and American art, is a remarkable treasure. There is something for everyone from painting to sculpture, silver, porcelain, prints, drawings and photographs. While some of us spent part of our time at Williams College learning about the original US founding documents housed there, others opted to spend all of their time at The Clark. I could have spent all day gazing at the French Impressionist paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro and the sculptures by Degas. However I also appreciated the special exhibit, “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly”.

Unfortunately because of the weather and time constraints, we did not see the surrounding grounds or the trails to the newest addition to the Institute, The Stone Hill Center. This new building, opened in June 2008, houses two new galleries and the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. The WACC offers restoration services for many forms of art as well as furniture and antiques and is the largest center of its kind in the country.

About the only things horticultural about Mass MoCA( Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art ) in North Adams MA were the trees growing upside-down in hanging pots at the entrance and a few of the exhibits. But Wow! What a place to see! Talk about challenging ideas and unusual images. This place surprised and delighted everyone from aficionados to skeptics. Almost everyone in our group left the site wanting to make a return visit. There were giant sculptures, beautiful optical tricks, photography that surprised us and terrariums suspended from the ceiling that we could view from the inside by stepping on stools to allow us to peer inside. One room the size of a football field was dark except for the light from huge thought-provoking words and phrases that continually moved from one end of the room to the other. You could view this from one of three giant bean bags on the floor, or not. This is a happening place with over 120,000 visitors per year. If you haven’t made the trip, it is worth the ride no matter how you get there.

Chesterwood, estate of sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) of Lincoln Memorial fame was the last site that we visited in the Berkshires. The mansion and separate studio building are sited on a hill with a view of the mountains. There are woodland trails, great lawns, mature trees and gardens. According to museum staff, Daniel French designed his own perennial gardens. He is responsible for the design of an Italian influenced garden with a marble fountain, a semicircular marble bench and allee of hydrangeas that extends out into the lawn. As I wandered the grounds, I came upon a standing sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. It was a smaller prototype for a larger-than-life sculpture created for the town of Lincoln Nebraska. As it stood on the edge of the woods, it held my attention and I understood why after I read what was written on the pedicel. His pose was solemn because it was meant to represent Lincoln’s mood just before he gave his Gettysburg address.

If you have never taken a tour with The Landmark Society of Western New York, you may want to consider enriching your life with one of these well-organized educational experiences.

Posted by Beverly Gibson, Landmark Society of WNY Horticulturist


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