Mobile, AL Part II: Bellingrath Gardens
With spring well underway in southern Alabama, one of the things we wanted to be sure to see in the Mobile area was Bellingrath Gardens. The historic home and gardens are part of a 65-acre estate originally owned by Walter and Bessie Bellingrath. The entrance is shown in the photo below.
can purchase tickets to see the gardens only, or to see the gardens in
combination with a house tour and/or a 45-minute cruise on the adjacent
Fowl River. We opted for the full combination that included the gardens, house, and
In 1903, Walter Bellingrath and his older brother William heard about the opportunity to buy franchises to sell bottled Coca-Cola. They scraped together some money, got a loan, and bought a franchise for southern Alabama. Later, they decided to split the franchise; and since Walter liked to fish, he took the area around Mobile. Walter's Coca-Cola franchise became one of the most successful in the United States; and his business interests later expanded to include owning a ceramic tile company, a warehousing company, and a steamship company.
In 1906, Walter married Bessie Mae Morse, who was his stenographer at his Coca-Cola bottling company. Bessie developed an interest in horticulture and antiques and her tireless energy and love of beauty played a predominant role in making Bellingrath the masterpiece it is today. The fact that the Bellingraths had no children and had almost unlimited funds helped a lot, too.
Walter was somewhat of a workaholic, and in 1917 he bought a fish camp along the banks of the Fowl River near Mobile Bay on the advice of his doctor so he could have a place to relax. As we said, Bessie had a keen interest in gardens, and she had extensive plantings of azaleas and camellias at their residence in Mobile. She soon realized the fish camp was an ideal location for additional plantings and began gardening there.
The Bellingraths decided to open their weekend retreat to guests year-round and to move there themselves from their home in downtown Mobile. They hired prominent Mobile architect George B. Rogers to design a house to be built on the site of the fish camp. The house was completed in 1935.
Mrs. Bellingrath died of a sudden heart attack in 1943 at age 63 after living in the house only eight years. Mr. Bellingrath continued to live in the house until his death in 1955 at age 86. After Mr. Bellingrath's death, ownership of the house and gardens passed to the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation. The Foundation was established to fund and manage the house and garden and keep them open to the public since the Bellingraths had no children.
From the entrance of the estate, there is a pathway that winds through several garden areas and leads to the house. The gardens are beautiful with picturesque scenes and vistas almost everywhere you look.
Bellingrath always has something in bloom, and the web site lists what is currently in flower. Camellias bloom in January and February, and March is the time for azaleas. Summer annuals dominate from May through September, more annuals and chrysanthemums bloom in fall, and poinsettias along with Christmas lights are featured in December. The display of fuchsia, ageratum, and hydrangea shown in the photo below was just inside the entrance.
Bellingrath Gardens has an extensive rose garden that blooms from April to December. The rose garden is planted with large blocks of the same variety in each section.
The composite photo below gives you an idea of just a few of the many varieties in bloom. The fragrance was intoxicating.
Adjacent to the rose garden was the conservatory where there is a lush display of tropical plants and orchids.
A little farther along, delphiniums, petunias, and cape daisies line the walkway as it approaches the house.
The next several photos show various views of the house. The first shows the approach to the house with the entrance to the right.
The next photo looks toward the house across the south terrace where the original fish camp was located.
Below is the courtyard near the entrance.
And finally, there is a view from the river side of the house.
The tour of the house was interesting. The house was the most modern in Mobile when it was built in 1935, but there was no electric power at the time in the relatively remote area by the river where the house was located. Therefore, the house had its own generator until power lines were finally run in 1940.
Make no mistake, at 10,500 square feet, the house is quite large and it is elaborately furnished; but it is designed to give the impression it is more intimate and more modest than it is, thus making it appear to be quite comfortable and livable rather than stuffy and pretentious. You'll have to take our word for that because, unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside.
After the tour of the house, we were just in time for the noon cruise up the Fowl River. French settlers gave the river the name River of Birds because of the many birds that inhabited the area. The English translation became the much less romantic-sounding Fowl River.
From the back of the house, you can see the river. The river boat is barely visible behind the covered landing.
The river cruise included a brief history of Mobile. Spanish explorers sailed into Mobile Bay as early as 1500. The Spanish, who were known as Conquistadors (conquerors), warred with the Native Americans who lived in the area, killing many of them and destroying their towns and villages. But the Spanish never really established any settlements in the area.
After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Spanish power began to wane. Following this defeat, English influence in much of the New World began to grow, but the French remained strong in Canada. In 1682, La Salle floated down the Mississippi River from Canada and claimed the entire Mississippi Basin for France. The French established a settlement near present-day Mobile in 1702. Mobile became part of the United States in 1813 as part of the Mississippi Territory. It later became part of the Alabama Territory.
The river cruise also included a description of the ecology of the Mobile Bay Estuary. The mixing of the fresh water from the rivers with the salt water of the bay creates unique habitats for marine life and serves as a nursery for a multitude of vertebrates and invertebrates, which in turn attracts the many birds for which the river is named.
We also got to see some of the many large homes along the river. The one in the photo below reminded us of Mount Vernon.
Seagulls also liked to follow our boat looking for handouts of popcorn. This laughing gull and several of his friends kept flying by.
As the boat docked, we could see Bellingrath Grotto, with its waterfall and seasonal flowers. The grotto was completed in 1929 and is located at the original river entrance to the fish camp.
There are a lot more of the gardens to explore, so look for our next post.