Mansion and History
In 1895, Augustus Van Wickle and his wife, Bessie Pardee Van Wickle, purchased 70 acres of waterfront land in Bristol, RI and named it Blithewold (Old English for “happy woodland”). They built a large, Queen Anne style mansion, and moved in during the summer of 1896. They would reside at Blithewold from May until November. Bessie hired John DeWolf, Bristol landscape architect and Superintendent of Prospect Park, New York City, to help implement her vision of a horticultural sanctuary.
Plans included the subtle grading of the Great Lawn and the planting of specimen trees. A golf course was laid out on the southern part of the property, complete with a club house for entertaining. Docks, bath-houses, and swimming platforms were built on the waterfront, and fine sand was brought in from Martha’s Vineyard to create a sandy beach.
In 1898, Augustus was killed in a skeet-shooting accident. He left two daughters, Marjorie, born in 1883, and Augustine, born several months after her father’s untimely death. The family continued summering at Blithewold, and 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.
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 the furniture and furnishings, even fireplaces and bathtubs. The following year, a second, grander mansion was built on the same site in an English Country Manor style. Bessie and John DeWolf continued their tireless work, adding elements to the grounds: rare trees including a now-90-ft giant sequoia, stone walls, and a formal perennial garden
Rescuing an Endangered Property
Marjorie Van Wickle Lyon inherited her mother’s talents as a horticulturist, and after her mother’s death she continued Bessie's master plan for the property, developing the arboretum and cultivating rare plants. Marjorie left her historic garden estate to the Heritage Trust of Rhode Island (now "Preserve Rhode Island") in 1976. In 1998, faced with mounting financial difficulties, the Trust explored alternative stewardship arrangements that would sustain Blithewold, including working with a private developer on a proposal that would have restricted public access in the future. The prospect that Blithewold might be once again private galvanized people, in Bristol and beyond, to propose an alternative.
To make sure that Blithewold would always be open to the public, a small group of concerned citizens banded together, raised $650,000 in just a few weeks to provide operating monies until a permanent solution could be found. This group, incorporated as Save Blithewold, Inc., was motivated by a desire to keep Blithewold's doors and garden gates open to the public, based on sustainable financial management The Trust and Save Blithewold, Inc. entered into a 99 year lease, guaranteeing that the property will be preserved and accessible. In 2006 SaveBlithewold, Inc. changed is its name to Blithewold, Inc.
In 2010, Blithewold, Inc and Preserve Rhode Island, amended the lease for a period of 99 years with an extension option, so that Blithewold will be managed by Blithewold, Inc. for the foreseeable future.
Since assuming stewardship responsibility for Blithewold in 1999, Save Blithewold, Inc, has concentrated on rebuilding a broad base of support for the property in the community and amongst horticultural enthusiasts, increasing earned income from all sources, increasing the quality of care and interpretation of the gardens, grounds and mansion. The new organization laid the groundwork for a comprehensive campaign to achieve a reasonable and sustainable balance between earned income, annual fundraising, and endowment. Signs of success include:
- A growing membership base; currently at 1,300
- Earned income accounts for above average 60% of operating budget
- Growing visitation and attendance at education programs (35,000 visitors annually)
- A dedicated core of over 200 volunteers who assist in running the property
- Recognition in the press and professional organizations as a major horticultural and historic attraction
- An endowment of $3.2 million
In 2006 the Board of Directors unanimously approved changing our corporate name to Blithewold, Inc. to reflect our success and transformation into a financially and organizationally strong institution.
Wednesday, May 15
- Wednesday, June 19
Introduction to Watercolor
Thursday, May 23
Tree Mob at the Arnold Arboretum
Saturday, May 25
Behind the Scenes Tour
Marjorie’s dove tree turns 40
(May 16, '13)
It’s a lucky visitor whose gaze turns east along the path between the mansion and the Enclosed Garden, instead of west across the blooming North Garden and Great Lawn to Narragansett Bay. The western view is a compelling one to be sure and even I am caught up short by it every time I walk ...
The Costume Collection
(Jan 07, '13)
Many of you already know about the fabulous collection of gowns and accessories belonging to Bessie Van Wickle McKee that came home to Blithewold last year. Forty-one dresses with accessories, coats, and hats, had been given to the Colonial Dames … Continue reading