Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum
Narragansett, RI - Events of Friday, September 6, 2013
On Friday, we headed about an hour north of Narragansett to Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum in Bristol, RI. Blithewold was the summer home of Augustus Van Wickle and his wife Bessie. Augustus Van Wickle was from Hazleton, PA where he had made his fortune in coal mining.
The Van Wickles bought 70 acres along the banks of Narragansett Bay in 1894 and completed their summer home in 1896. They only got to spend two summers there together because Augustus was tragically killed in a skeet-shooting accident in 1898.
Bessie remarried a businessman from Boston by the name of William McKee in 1901, and they continued to spend summers at Blithewold. The original Queen Anne-style summer home burned to the ground in 1906. Plans were set in motion right away for a replacement house. The house that exists today was built in the style of an English manor house and is even grander than the original.
Bessie was interested in horticulture, and she hired a landscape architect to assist with her garden plans for Blithewold. The gardens include numerous varieties of trees, which is the reason they use "arboretum" in their name. Admission to the gardens is $11 for adults, $10 for AAA members and $9 for seniors and includes a self-guided tour of the house.
We bought our tickets and headed toward the Moon Gate through which there is a path that leads to the house.
We paused long enough to enjoy some of the roses that were still blooming in the garden area by the Moon Gate.
We get so caught up in writing our blogs, we always forget to mention you can enlarge a photo by clicking on it; and if you click on it a second time, it will get even bigger. That might be something useful to know for a composite like the one above if you would like to get a better look at the individual flowers or at some detail in one of the other photos.
From the Moon Gate, we continued a short distance up the path to the house.
The tours of the mansion are self-guided, but there are docents throughout the house to provide additional information and to answer questions. The house has all the original furnishings.
In the 1930s, Bessie and William McKee, feeling the effects of the stock market crash, sold their home in Boston and moved to Blithewold year round. They also sold part of the land at Blithewold so that only 32 or 33 of the original 70 acres remain today. Marjorie, who was the older of Bessie and Augustus' two daughters, continued to spend summers at Blithewold until her death in 1976 when she left Blithewold to the Heritage Trust of Rhode Island (now known as Preserve Rhode Island).
After our tour of the house, we went out onto the veranda where we spent a little time enjoying the view of Narragansett Bay and studying the map of the grounds to decide which way we wanted to go next.
The arboretum at Blithewold consists of mature specimens of dozens of varieties of trees. The most notable tree specimen is a 90-foot giant sequoia located to the northeast of the house. The tree is the largest sequoia east of the Rockies. Bessie's landscape architect, John DeWolf, planted the tree at Blithewold in 1911 because at a height of 12 feet, it had outgrown its former home in a greenhouse in New York where DeWolf had been growing it. There are a dozen other sequoias on the property, all but one of which were started from seeds or cuttings from this one.
After passing the sequoia, we headed to the largest garden area, which is located next to the greenhouse.
We continued on our way around the garden path to the rock garden. This garden has changed little since Bessie's time.
Next to the rock garden is the water garden.
We walked along Narragansett Bay for a short distance then headed back toward the house. On our way, we stopped at the summer house. Inside we took advantage of the opportunity to watch home movies of the family enjoying summer activities like a 4th of July celebration in 1925. While walking along the Bay earlier, Margery had commented on how big the yard was from the veranda to the shore. The home movies included everyone admiring a biplane that had landed in that yard. It was really fun to see the family enjoying the very property that was on display today.
After the summer house, we stopped to check out the North Garden located at the north end of the house.
We relaxed in the Adirondack chairs by the North Garden for a time and enjoyed the view of Narragansett Bay.
Even though it was late in the summer and some of the flowering plants were past their prime, there was still plenty of color at Blithewold. The next composite photo shows just a few examples.
We enjoyed our visit to Blithewold very much. Even though many of the mansions in Newport are much grander than Blithewold, we chose to tour Blithewold because of the gardens, and we weren't disappointed. Truth be told, we haven't met a garden we didn't like. Some are just better than others.
We headed back to the motor home for an evening of relaxation. We had another outing planned for Saturday, so stay tuned.