John DeWolf, Blithewold’s landscape designer, was born in Bristol. He was intimately connected with the Blithewold property from childhood, his DeWolf ancestors having owned the land which, in the 18th century, ran from Mount Hope Bay to Bristol Harbor and included the property that would become Blithewold.
DeWolf grew up on Griswold Avenue, the son of Algernon Sidney DeWolf and Clara Diman DeWolf. As a young man he traveled as topographer and hydrographer for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. His innate love of horticulture took him to Europe where he studied landscape architecture, visiting and studying some of the great gardens of Europe.
From 1898 until 1906 De Wolf was connected with the New York City Parks Department, working at Prospect and Carroll Parks in Brooklyn. In 1895 Augustus Van Wickle hired DeWolf to improve his new property, Blithewold. These improvements were on-going until Augustus’s death in 1898. In 1901 Bessie Van Wickle asked DeWolf to continue with his plans for the estate.
Much of what is in evidence today at Blithewold is testament to John DeWolf’s knowledge and imagination, including the water garden, the moon-gate, the Bosquet, the statuary, and the paths. He also designed and installed the iron scrollwork over the stone entrance to the estate. In 1911 he planted Blithewold’s first Giant Sequoia, propagated by him at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. When the tree outgrew the greenhouse there, he sent it by train to Blithewold. When it was planted in the Enclosed Garden it stood 10 feet high. He surrounded it with other evergreens to protect it.
Never married, John DeWolf died in Bristol in 1913 at the home of his brother-in-law, Nathaniel Herreshoff, and is buried in Juniper Hill Cemetery. His friend Estelle Clements wore a spray of his favorite flowers to his funeral – heliotrope and Aaron Ward roses. Much of his professional and personal life remains a mystery, but Blithewold’s grounds are a constant reminder of what was an important part of his life.
LETTER TO BESSIE McKEE FROM JOHN DEWOLF
Bristol, Rhode Island
My dear Mrs. McKee
There are but few more signs of spring here as yet, but we are all ready to push things as soon as the weather permits.
I want to let you know that I have secured a lot of fine old box in East Providence. I think it is almost equal to that on the East side of the house. If not as tall as the tallest there, it is more thick and bushy. This I propose massing against the Terrace on the West side of the house, where I think it will have a fine effect, and using a little of it in the Bosquet to contrast with the large leaves of the rhododendrons.
I shall want a few more evergreens to use about the terrace and you spoke of some more pines and spruces for the Golf grounds and about the stable. So you think a car load would be too many? I can use them all and even more to advantage. Kindly let me know about this. I am going to South Kingston in a few days to see about the rhododendrons. I am trying to get John to hurry the mason up with the work about the fountain for I want everything green and pretty there this summer as well as about the pond.
We have nearly finished trimming the trees on the Ferry Road however, and it never looked more neat. You will never realize the amount of dead wood we cut out of them, now that it has been taken away.
We hope you will be able to get here early this spring.
Yours truly & respectfully
P.S. Would you like the garage screened off with Evergreens? There should be some young ones filled in among the old ones along the Ferry Road and in front of the old Gardner House