Joseph Choate was one of the most fortunate of men, not exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth but with everything one needed to get a silver spoon and more. Much more. Like a lavish gentleman farm in Stockbridge, Mass., called Naumkeag.
Choate was born in Salem, Mass., then the biggest port in Massachusetts. He was descended from solid Puritan stock, merchants and sailors and accused witch trial victims. His cousin, Rufus Choate, stood at the pinnacle of the legal profession in the United States.
Joe Choate had impeccable WASP credentials, Harvard and Harvard Law degrees, striking good looks and imposing size. And he happened to move to New York City at the dawn of Big Law (which loved nothing more than impeccable WASP credentials and impressive family connections).
The Origins of Big Law
Up until the Civil War, most lawyers trained as apprentices in established law offices. But in 1782, Tapping Reeve set up the first independent law school in Litchfield, Conn. Reeve trained many prominent lawyers, and, academic law schools grew in popularity, usually tied to universities.
By the Civil War, the United States had a hundred law schools, albeit small ones. According to Joseph Choate, even Harvard’s law school didn’t require much from its students. Bar associations were just social clubs.
Then came the Gilded Age, westward expansion, the railroads, the trusts and the large corporation with operations in many jurisdictions. Large, complex business organizations had complex legal problems, and a new generation of law school graduates was only too happy to help. Joseph Choate, who graduated from Harvard Law in 1854, was in the vanguard of Big Law.
“He was promising at 25, prominent at 45, esteemed at 65, venerated at 85,” wrote D.M. Marshman in American Heritage magazine. With millionaires as clients, he was involved in some of the most famous legal cases in American legal history. After work he circulated in New York’s highest social circles. He had a happy marriage and five children. And he made a great deal of money.
He also had a quality that made his excessive good fortune bearable to others, wrote Marshman. “Choate didn’t take things too seriously, including himself,” he wrote. “Almost alone of the outsized figures of the Gilded Age he had charm.”
His personality shows up in Naumkeag, his summer home in Stockbridge. Unlike the mansions in Newport built to impress, Naumkeag, though large (44 rooms), lacks the grandeur of Marble House or The Breakers. Visitors describe it as a real family home. And, unlike the denizens of Newport, the Choate family stayed at Naumkeag from April to November, not just six weeks.
Choate hired the prominent architect Stanford White to design Naumkeag in the Shingle Style then popular among wealthy gentlemen. Construction started in 1885 and ended the next year. The house has stunning views of the Housatonic Valley and Monument Mountain.
White then traveled with the Choates to Europe to pick out furnishings. The result was an Arts and Crafts style interior, with carved wood paneling, a rich, muted color scheme and lots and lots of art and antiques. The house had many modern amenities, but it didn’t have air conditioning. Plenty of door and windows open in summertime to let in breeze and movement.
Choate died in 1917 and his wife Caroline Dutcher Sterling (a strong advocate of women’s education) died in 1929. Their daughter Mabel inherited the house. She spent the next thirty years turning the stiff Victorian gardens into a playground for the imagination. Mabel met a landscape designer, Fletcher Steele, and together they created a landscape described as “the most unique and original gardens in North America.”
When Mabel died in 1958, she bequeathed the property to the Trustees of Reservations.
The National Register of Historic Places lists Stockbridge’s Main Street as a historic district. Norman Rockwell made it famous with his 1967 painting, Stockbridge at Christmas. In it, Rockwell featured Stockbridge’s famous Red Lion Inn.
In addition to re-landscaping Naumkeag, Mabel Choate restored a historic property: the Mission House. As its name suggests, it’s a rare example of a colonial missionary’s house, finished in 1742.
Stockbridge also has several other big money houses, including Elm Court, Chesterwood and Wheatleigh. Probably the most popular local attraction is the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Five Things You’ll Remember About Naumkeag
The Blue Steps
Mabel asked Fletcher Steele to do something with the hilly path that led down to her cutting garden. He designed the Bue Steps, a fascinating set of arches and a brook framed by birch trees. The whimsical steps have been called “the most recognized feature in any American garden.”
The Chinese Garden
Considered Steele’s masterpiece, the walled Chinese Garden features Mabel Choate’s Asian artifacts. It has a moon gate.
The house and decorations were left exactly as if Mabel Choate walked out one day and never came back. Visitors feel they’ve stepped into a time warp. They can even see what a fly swatter looked like when Mabel was alive.
Vegetation has obscured some of the sweeping views of Monument Valley and the Housatonic Valley, but you can still stand in awe of the spectacular scenery.
Mabel’s collection of antique Lowestoft porcelain was internationally known.
If you visit…
There is ample parking, but a long walk uphill to get the to the house. You may drop off people who have mobility issues.
You can only access the inside of the house on a guided tour, but you can also take a less expensive self-guided tour of the gardens.
Lunch is available and the property has a small gift shop.
Tours can fill up fast, so it’s best to get your tickets early. Small children may find the house tour boring, but the docents do hand out activity sheets to keep them from destroying the precious antiques. Check the website for prices and hours. https://thetrustees.org/place/naumkeag/.
Naumkeag sponsors events, including pumpkins at Halloween, lights in the winters and outdoor concerts on Thursday evenings in the summer.
You can bring a book and spend the day in the gardens.
Images: Garden wall By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27995194. Afternoon garden By I, Daderot, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2346118. Naumkeag Blue Steps By I, Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2346124. Chinese garden By I, Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2346131. Naumkeag By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27995210. Naumkeag with rose garden in foreground By I, Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2346112. The view By I, Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2346136.