Blithewold's Gardens: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Full Bloom

Bessie Van Wickle McKee’s, landscape architect John DeWolf’s, and Marjorie Lyon’s visions for the 33-acre estate come to life in the form of gardens, plantings, pathways, lawns, and stone structures, all largely still intact from their inception.

The Gardens & Grounds

The Van Wickles placed great emphasis on the landscape, particularly Bessie, who was an avid gardener. They hired Bristol author and landscape gardener John DeWolf to lay out the grounds. Landscape designer and plantsman John DeWolf based his over-arching concept for the site on the dirt roads, stone walls and gentle pastures of the existing vernacular landscape features, as well as the dramatic waterfront site. His design reflects a widespread interest in America’s 17th and 18th century heritage that manifested itself in both the Colonial Revival and the American Arts and Crafts movements. It harmoniously integrates multiple design typologies to create varied garden spaces that are unified by the Great Lawn and framed by mature specimen trees and shrubs.

Blithewold’s landscape embraces active recreation and quiet repose, integrating indoor-outdoor living spaces in a way that anticipates a more casual 20th century lifestyle. The dock complex, tennis courts and former golf clubhouse reflect Augustus Van Wickle and his passion for sports. Photos, descriptions and home movies—as well as kayaks and croquet sets—that remain in the collections demonstrate the active lifestyle of his two daughters and a turn-of-the-century feminist spirit.

Today's Gardens & Grounds

When walking the grounds today, you will notice a combination of historic and contemporary gardening. The 10-acre Great Lawn, Enclosed Garden, Orchard, and Cutting and Vegetable Gardens were laid out in the late 1890s. Bessie ordered the construction of the Lord and Burnham Greenhouses in 1901. The Bosquet, Rose, and Water Gardens were created in the early 1900s, followed by the North Garden in 1911, and the Rock Garden in the 1920s.

The Cutting Garden has since been renamed the Idea Garden, and Blithewold's talented horticultural staff has also added a Pollinator Garden, a small Nursery, and a re-designed Vegetable Garden to the property. The gardens present an inspirational and invigorating marriage of formal and naturalistic landscape elements, ranging from poetic to practical, reflecting the Van Wickle family's love of nature and ornamental horticulture.

Visit the Garden Blog to read the latest news about Blithewold's gardens and grounds.

The Gardens and Grounds

Rose Garden

The Rose Garden, planted ca.1900, reflects a popular trend among large estates during the early 1900s. Bessie and John DeWolf's design features a variety of showy climbing and shrub roses, the centenarian Chestnut Rose (from George Washington's Mt. Vernon estate), and the Asian-inspired Moongate.

North Garden

The North Garden was formerly referred to as the Sunken Garden, until a stone North Star (rescued from a chimney in the original mansion after the fire) was installed in the garden wall. The family viewed the most formal of the Blithewold gardens––featuring lush, deep borders; ornamental stonework; a fountain; a garden pool; and lawn––as an extension of the mansion. Today it showcases a variety of perennials, annuals, and flowering shrubs. The North Garden is the ideal setting for weddings and other social functions.

Enclosed Garden

This garden is the oldest on the property and features winding pathways, a rolling lawn surrounded by mature trees and shrubs, and the Summerhouse, which looks out on Blithewold's original Giant Sequoia, planted in 1911. It is the tallest Giant Sequoia on the East Coast.

Idea Garden

Once a cutting garden and orchard, the Idea Garden now teams several smaller gardens: the Cutting Garden, the Herb Garden, the Troughery, the Checkerboard Garden, and areas for sun and shade loving plants.

Rock Garden

Bessie's favorite, the Rock Garden, which she called Little Mt. Hope, sits within yards of the Bay and features a raised area of rocks, charming small- scale plantings, and evergreen trees and shrubs to provide shelter from the wind.

Water Garden

The water lily-filled pond serves as the centerpiece for this garden. The arched stone bridge, small island with its iron lantern, and Asian-inspired landscape elements, such as the Japanese Maple plantings, are also central to the area.

Pollinator Garden

Blithewold's garden staff planted this garden with native honey bees, butterflies, and other insects in mind, filling it with pollinator-friendly coneflowers, thistles, summer phlox, and golden-rod.

Vegetable Garden

Although no longer plowed by a team of horses, the Vegetable Garden still produces an abundance of crops each summer. The garden donates over 1,000 pounds of produce to the East Bay Food Pantry each season, and Blithewold's summer campers visit the garden each week to have fun while learning about gardening and harvesting their own vegetables. The garden also provides for Blithewold’s dedicated staff and volunteers.

Lord and Burnham Greenhouses

(restored and rebuilt in 2005 and 2015)
Blithewold's door to a more exotic climate, the Lord and Burnham Greenhouses feature an eclectic mix of tropical plants and less hardy varieties of familiar garden mainstays. In late winter, the staff and volunteers start seeds and cuttings, which will eventually take root in gardens all over the property.

Other Notable Areas

The Great Lawn

The sweeping 10 acre Great Lawn and its views to Narragansett Bay is the perfect setting for over 500 different kinds of trees and shrubs. In 1926, Arnold Arboretum’s plantsmen Ernest “Chinese” Wilson and Alfred Rehder visited Blithewold and were awestruck by the variety of plants they found. In a letter to her daughter, Bessie Van Wickle McKee wrote, “They were frankly amazed to find so lovely and interesting a place here and kept saying, ‘Why you have an arboretum here; we never dreamed there was a place like this.’”

Lovers' Lane

A mainstay of the property pre-dating the 18th century, Lovers' Lane provided the Van Wickles with access to the Bay and their beach, the bathhouses, and the original dock, which were destroyed by the 1938 hurricane.

Bamboo Grove

Planted in the 1930's. Contained by mowing during active growth.

Bosquet

The Bosquet, French for “woodland,” features a tall canopy of deciduous trees, evergreen groundcovers, and open views within. The Bosquet has been an integral part of Blithewold’s landscape since its conception by John DeWolf in 1895. The woodland space is a delight in any season—daffodils in spring, wildflowers, ferns, and cool shade in the summer, colorful leaves in autumn, and protective solitude in winter.

Nut Grove

Bessie Van Wickle McKee amassed a collection of nut trees and planted them just west of the Bosquet. Among others, Manchurian Walnuts, Bitternut, Butternut, Hickory, and Chinese Chestnuts were included in the collection. Many of the trees still grace the area today.

Shrub Walk

John DeWolf planted a border of evergreen trees along the north side of the Great Lawn to provide shelter from the harsh northwest winter winds, and to protect the extensive collection of shrubs, both native and exotic, evergreen and deciduous, that he planted from the Bosquet to the Bay. Evergreen tree specimens of note include: Giant Sequoia, White Pine, White Spruce, Arborvitae, False Cypress, and Silver Fir. (The Shrub Walk plan is the only original plan available in the Archives.)

Explore our map of the Mansion and Grounds.

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