Dating My Wardrobe: Negotiating Space at Naumkeag

As I embark on a sartorial romance, dating my vintage wardrobe, I realize that the clothes on my back are the only real constant in my life. Every seven years, my very own body freakishly exists as collection of completely new regenerated cells, and I certainly have changed my mind over the steady march of time. I lived in various places, as visitor with a lease agreement, but nothing so permanent to call my own. My clothes. My woven companions. These are the only things which cling to my person with any sort of permanence. This negotiation of space, both personal and geographical, always includes a piece of my beloved wardrobe. But enough about me. Let’s talk about Naumkeag, and my date with my vintage 1980s circle skirt and off-the-shoulder shirt.

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Moi in the “Afternoon Garden”

I realize that the places I typically drag my wardrobe along to exist as historical sites, and are generally reserved as a landmark, and preserved for public posterity only after some rich, old white dude from the Gilded Age drops dead, and his descendants of a modern age can no longer afford to upkeep an overgrown, and ostentatious property. This is where a board of trustees, or the government swoops in to care for the property, offering its remarkable beauty to the public (for a nominal fee). This period of historical tourism, for any designated space, is only one chapter in the line of many. As I visited Naumkeag, in the Prospect Hill district of Stockbridge, MA, I do so considering the many different people, structures, purposes and names that the historic spot possessed. Like myself, Naumkeag is a space which has experienced a history of negotiation and reorganization. As I tip-toe through the “Chinese Garden,” perched on a Hill once inhabited by Native Americans, but now exists in an exclusive residential area of New England, only the company of my 1980s tropical motif skirt makes any sense.

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Joseph Hodges Choate, old, rich white dude

While I can’t account for the Stockbridge region during the Mesozoic, Cretaceous, Neolithic eras, historically, Stockbridge was inhabited by Mohican Native Americans. During the 1730s, Stockbridge was founded as a Mission Community, where reading, writing and the Christian doctrine was taught to the Mohicans, and other Native tribes. In the late-19th century, the site on top of Prospect Hill which would become Naumkeag was purchased by prominent New York City lawyer, Joseph Hodges Chaote. Here’s where some name/place negotiation gets tricky. Choate came from the Essex County area of Massachusetts, originally inhabited by the Naumkeag Native American tribe. Before Salem, MA became Salem, it was known as Naumkeag– most likely derived from the Algonkian root “namaas” (fish), and “ki” (place)– or fishing place. Joseph Choate liked the idea of the tranquil fishing hole behind the name Naumkeag, and so he named his Stockbridge area summer home, purchased in 1884, “Naumkeag,” leaving behind his Choate name in the Essex County area, where one can find Choate Hall and Choate Island.

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The Front Entrance to Naumkeag

Ok. Considering the naming, and renaming of all of these places is making my head spin. I’m holding my familiar circle skirt and fanny pack near and dear, and moving on to my date. To begin, I park near some cows in the visitor parking area, put my lipstick on (with the approval of onlooking heifers),  and march-up Prospect Hill. I purchase my ticket, and while I wait to tour the 44-room shingle-style “summer cottage” of Naumkeag, designed by the infamous Stanford White of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in 1885, I stroll around the thematic gardens of the property. I think about Stanford White’s violent end, while I admire the tranquil Berkshire Mountains from the Tree Peony Terrace. Aside from being a talented architect, Stanford White was a seasoned lover of the ladies. unfortunately choosing to romance celebrated beauty– and wife of millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw– Evelyn Nesbit. In a fit of rage and jealousy, Thaw murders White in what was contemporaneously termed “The Trial of the Century.” Needless to say, White’s career–among other things– ends.

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View from Tree Peony Terrace Where I Contemplate                                                 Murder…That of Stanford White, of Course!

But, I’m not fixated on the house for long. My attention is drawn to the gardens of property, largely developed by the last resident Naumkeag, Mabel Choate. Following the death of her father in 1917, Mabel took the reigns of revamping the gardens, collaborating with the landscape designer Fletcher Steele in 1926 to create the Afternoon Garden, Rose Garden, Tree Peony Terrace, Evergreen Garden, the Chinese Garden, and Steele’s world renown Blue Steps, featuring a graduated series of water fountains with cobalt blue tiles, and flanking staircases.

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Studying the Art of Leisure in the “Chinese Garden”

I move from the Tree Peony Terrace to what is called the “Chinese Garden,” which showcases Mabel Choate’s collection of Asian sculpture, acquired from her travels. Despite my current status as a post graduate student, working two internships, and living with my aunt in a little pink room, I am able to pretend that I am a lady of leisure, in an age dripping with golden opportunity. I sit in a comfortable orange recliner, located in the fantasy Chinese pagoda-style outdoor patio, and admire the geometric and minimalistic water features of the garden. After a bit of lounging, I exit the Chinese Gardens through a lovely circular gateway– an action which is considered good luck.

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The green inhabitants of the Afternoon Garden

The rest of my garden-tour is an ongoing series of walking, stopping, having my breath taken away from a view, sitting, making sure that my skirt stops riding-up my leg, and fanny pack quits its 360 degree revolution around my waist, and walking again. Through this experience, my vintage wardrobe and I grew closer than ever. Negotiating spaces can be confusing. Names change, people change, places change, but clothes remain the same.

 

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