Born in Rochester, New York, Fletcher Steele graduated from Williams College and entered the new Master of Landscape Architecture program at Harvard in 1907, departing early to join Warren H. Manning’s Boston office. Steele visited gardens in Europe, attended the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and was conversant with formal design precedents; simultaneously he was fascinated by an emerging Modernist style and eagerly embraced the challenge of developing a peculiarly American eclectic style.
While an early design for Charlotte Whitney Allen in Rochester presents a restrained, highly formal small garden, his renovations to Nathan Barrett’s design of Mabel Choate’s estate, Naumkeag, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, explored early Modernist rethinking of materials and design. Over almost twenty years of collaboration, Steele used the estate’s landscape to explore abstract forms, dramatic color, and unusual industrial materials. This culminated in his iconic Blue Steps, commissioned originally as a simple, convenient descent to the cutting garden. At the Camden (Maine) Public Library, Steele’s design for the Amphitheatre, with its revolutionary use of a bent axis in a public garden, used the natural terrain and native white birch to create a highly stylized design, both powerful and memorable. His estate work dwindled during the Great Depression and all but ended with World War II, but Steele continued designing until the end of his life. He authored two books and more than 150 articles.