On 7 May, after a good breakfast near the waterfront at the Beehive Cafe —
— we visited Blithewold Mansion, Gardens, & Arboretum in Bristol, Rhode Island. The history of the place is interesting.
Blithewold was originally purchased as a summer retreat for coal baron Augustus Van Wickle and his wife Bessie, in 1896. Two years later, when their daughter Marjorie was 15, Augustus met an untimely demise in a skeet-shooting accident in Hazleton, PA, where the family lived most of the year. A few months later, their daughter Augustine was born, obviously quite a bit younger than her older sister In 1901, Bessie remarried, to William McKee of Boston. Five years later, in 1906, the first Blithewold mansion was totally destroyed by fire, but the furnishings were pulled out of the house as it burned and were saved. The home was rebuilt, about twice as large as the original (around 26,000 square feet, and not as a attractive as the original in style, in my opinion), and the family was able to spend the summer of 1908 there. In 1914, daughter Marjorie married George Armstrong Lyon at Blithewold.
A few years before her accidental death in 1936 (falling down a Blithewold staircase), mother Bessie transfered ownership of Blithewold to her daughters Marjorie and Augustine and the family moved there permanently. Ten years later, in 1946, Bessie’s second husband, William McKee, died (age 83), and Marjorie bought her sister’s share of Blithewold, becoming its sole owner. Thirty years after that, in 1976, Marjorie died at Blithewold, age 93, and ownership of the home and grounds transfered to the Heritage Foundation/Trust of Rhode Island, with an endowment of $1.2 million for upkeep (unfortunately, by the late 1990s the endowment was spent and the property was almost closed, until local residents formed Save Blithewold, Inc., raised $650,000 in three weeks, and saved it). Marjorie’s sister Augustine had two children, Dee and Marjorie, but I guess when Augustine signed over her portion of the house to her sister, who didn’t have children, it was Marjorie’s to do with as she wished.
the back veranda, overlooking the Narragansett River
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the gardens and grounds, especially so early in the season, but I was pleasantly surprised especially with the arboretum aspect of the place — so many old and lovely trees, some specimen and nut trees planted around a 10-acre lawn —
and the “Bosquet,” or glade, with May apples, gone-by daffodils, and other wildflowers blooming under a shady canopy.
The rose garden, the North Garden (a small English-style border garden), the East Lawn with some huge trees like a Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, last seen in the wild in 1803) and a Giant Sequoia (Sequioadendron giganteum), and the shrub walk were also blooming (though it was mostly tulips and double tulips in the rose garden). And there were fairies and fairy houses everywhere.
The Yellow Groove Bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata) is growing nicely.
You can also walk down to the water (the Narragansett Bay) and along a small beach there.
Later in the year, the idea gardens, vegetable garden, pollinator gardens, and others will be in full flower and fruit. If we move nearby, we can visit all the time.
And eat fine street food from a food truck!
Lots more information about and many photos of the Blithewold mansion and history of the owners at Big Old Houses: (Very) Far From the Coal Mine.