The Mansion

The original Blithewold was a large, shingled, Queen Anne style mansion. The 45-room mansion was furnished with beautiful antiques and fine reproduction furniture. The photograph shown at the left was taken in 1901 five years before the mansion was destroyed by fire. 

The second Blithewold was much grander, designed by the Boston architectural firm of Kilham and Hopkinsin the English Country Manor style. Walter Kilham was a close friend of the McKees, and his partner, James Hopkins, spent part of each year in England where he witnessed the English Arts and Crafts Movement first hand. This style was revitalized as part of the Movement, and Hopkins embraced the design as desirable for the wealthy classes of America. These houses, typically, were built of rough stone, with steep pitched roofs and medieval ornamentation. The loggia of Blithewold, which faces Narragansett Bay, has carved crests and gargoyles, and is a copy of the (13th) century loggia at Cranborne Manor in Dorset, England.

The family loved outdoor pursuits, and the very architecture of the mansion ensures that its occupants are constantly aware of their magnificent surroundings. The house is long and narrow, built on a north-south axis, so that all the main rooms face west to the water. There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to ‘bring the outdoors in’, with French doors leading out to terraces, porches, loggias and sleeping-porches, and large windows which frame the glorious sunsets at Blithewold.

The center hall and staircase of the house are designed in the Colonial Revival style. This design was based on the Georgian style, popular in the English colonies of America in the mid-18th century. Typical are the elaborate ceilings in all the main rooms of the ground floor. Also characteristic of the Colonial Revival style are the fluted columns, dentil moldings, and volutes in the Entrance Hall, and the three different patterns of balusters on the stairways. The new Blithewold had electricity and coal-fired central heating, taking advantage of modern technology.

We know from photographs that the furniture in each room remains as Bessie McKee arranged it before 1910. She mixed decorative styles freely, emphasizing elegance, comfort, and informality. The Breton Bed Box in the Entrance Hall is a fine (18th) century antique, and the carved oak table in the center of the hall is a reproduction in the Renaissance style, dating from the late 1800s. The oldest pieces in the house are the Italian oak and leather armchairs in the Billiard Room, which were made in the early 1600s. Some of the furniture was made especially for the family. The Dining Room furniture, for example, is of oak, made for the Van Wickles in the 1890s, in a Baroque style. Several of the chairs were made of oak cut from the Blithewold gardens, and were marked with a Blithewold crest. The wedding chest in Marjorie’s bedroom was also made from Blithewold oak. The Master Bedroom furniture is (19th) century Dutch and Italian marquetry.

Almost all the rooms are decorated with the original wallpaper, the only exceptions being two bedrooms, which have been re-papered with fine quality reproductions of the originals. The walls in the Master Bedroom show a Dutch village scene, hand-painted on canvas-backed wallpaper. The Dining Room Collection includes Baccarat crystal, Gorham silver and more than 30 sets of fine china which are displayed in the Butler’s Pantry. There are several Tiffany lamps, an extensive doll collection, and original hand-embroidered linens, as well as souvenirs from the family’s world travels.

The archival collections are stored on the third floor of the Mansion (originally guest quarters). They represent many aspects of the lives of Blithewold family members over a span of 150 years, including their domestic lives, education, travels, recreation, gardens, and pets. The guest books are full of drawings, amusing stories, paintings, and praise for Bessie and Marjorie’s renowned hospitality.

Thousands of letters to and from the family tell of their dreams and aspirations. There are letters documenting historic events, like the opening of the Van Wickle Gates at Brown University in 1901, and the Fitz-Randolph Van Wickle Gates at Princeton University in 1905, both presented and dedicated by Bessie and Marjorie. Diaries in the archives document events of the day, social and historical occasions, progress in the gardens, and relationships within the extended family.

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