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Blithewold Mansion Garden and Arboretum

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Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum
101 Ferry Road (Rt. 114)
Bristol, Rhode Island 02809
Voice: 401-253-2707

Blithewold is a 33-acre estate in Bristol, Rhode Island, a spectacular property with lawns and gardens sweeping down to Narragansett Bay. It was established in the 1890's by Augustus and Bessie Van Wickle as their summer retreat. Augustus Van Wickle was from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where his family was in the coal-mining business. He attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and came to love the Ocean State. In 1895 he impulsively purchased a 72' steam yacht from the Herreshoff boat-building company in Bristol, and immediately began the search for a suitable property to build a summer home for his family. Bessie Van Wickle was a very accomplished horticulturist, and her heart's desire was to have enough good land to establish gardens and an arboretum. Their daughter, Marjorie, born in 1883, was to inherit her mother's considerable talent for horticulture, and Bessie and Marjorie would spend the rest of their lives developing this beautiful property.

The original Blithewold, a large shingled Queen Ann style mansion, was ready by the summer of 1896. The young family was delighted with their new estate, but sadly, in 1898 Augustus was killed in a skeet-shooting accident. Five months later Bessie gave birth to their second daughter, Augustine. In 1901 Bessie married William McKee, a successful Boston businessman and an old friend of Augustus. The McKees were known for their gracious hospitality and carefully orchestrated parties for family and friends. They would reside at Blithewold from May until November, often returning for holidays at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and family occasions. In 1906 tragedy struck again when fire completely destroyed their beautiful home. The fire was slow-burning, and with the help of many people from Bristol they were able to remove all their furniture and furnishings, even fireplaces and bathtubs. The following year a second, grander mansion was built on the same site. The house we know today is built of stone, in an English Country Manor style, and most of the furniture dates back to the original house. The family loved outdoor pursuits, and the very architecture of the mansion ensures that its occupants are constantly aware of their magnificent surroundings. The house is long and narrow so that all the main rooms look out onto Narragansett Bay, with large doors opening onto porches, balconies, terraces and gardens. Bessie McKee freely mixed decorative styles, emphasizing elegance, comfort and informality. Some of the furniture is very old, like the Italian armchairs in the front hall dating from the early 1600's. The Master Bedroom furniture is all 19th century Dutch marquetry, and the canvas-backed wallpaper is hand-painted depicting a Dutch village scene. Another bedroom boasts a collection of Stickley furniture, and the Living Room has several 17th and 18th century pieces, including a Beidermeier secretary. Many pieces were made for the family, in renaissance styles. The Dining Room furniture is made of oak, made around the turn of the century, in a Baroque style. Several chairs are made of oak from the Blithewold gardens, and are specially marked.

Most of the main rooms in the Mansion are still as they were in the early years of the 20th century. In all of the rooms except two, the wallpapers are original, and the two bedrooms which have been re-papered have been decorated with fine quality reproductions of the originals. The furniture in each room is still as Bessie McKee arranged it in the early 1900's. The Collection includes Baccarat crystal, Gorham silver, and more than 30 sets of fine china with original hand-embroidered linens, family photographs and books. There are several Tiffany lamps, an extensive doll collection, letters and postcards from their world travel. Flower arrangements from the cutting gardens adorn the house now, as then. The living quarters are so complete that one imagines the family still lives there.

Blithewold's 33 acres overlook Bristol Harbor and Narragansett Bay. Summertime visitors can stroll through the gardens and watch the sailboat races at the same time just as guests at Blithewold have done for the past 100 years. The sweeping 10-acre lawn stops at the water's edge and is the perfect setting for more than 1500 trees and shrubs that grow along its borders. There are nearly 300 different kinds of woody plants in the collection, which contains both native and exotic species.

John DeWolf, landscape architect and family friend worked on the design for the grounds from 1896 until his death in 1913. The Moon Gate in the Rose Garden was one of his last projects. Working with Bessie McKee, Mr. DeWolf designed an informal landscape with wide borders of flowers, shrubs and trees. Gravel paths meandered all around the property to make walking convenient and easy for the family and their many guests. In addition to the flower gardens, John DeWolf laid out the Bosquet (woodland), a nut grove and an extensive Shrub Walk from the Bosquet to the Bay. Mr. DeWolf heeded the family's request for exotic trees as well as native ones and planted species from Europe, China and Japan. He included weeping forms of plants when available and was responsible for planting the giant sequoia, now the largest of its species on the East Coast.

Visitors enter the grounds through the Rose Garden where 100 year old climbing roses grow on the fence that encloses the garden. Original shrub roses grow along side the newer David Austin hybrids. The century-old chestnut rose (Rosa roxburghii) dominates the garden especially when covered with thousands of single pink blossoms in early June. Passing through the moon gate in the Rose Garden to the rest of the property affords the visitor a first glimpse of the Great Lawn and Narragansett Bay.

Blithewold's landscape provides a glimpse of life as it was lived in another era when a dozen people worked on the grounds everyday. The McKees and their guests could enjoy daily outings to catch butterflies in the Water Garden or have tea on the summerhouse porch after walking through the flower gardens. Guests could simply stroll along the gravel paths and find a shady spot where they could read or paint. Blithewold offers its visitors the same kind of experience today. Everywhere one walks or looks is something that was inspired by the family's love of plants, gardens and this special place by the Bay.



Pictures and information were provided by Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum

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