The Great Lawn

a Great Lawn viewIt’s weird that I’m compelled to write about a lawn when the pink styrax is in bloom and the roses look so pretty but the other day a visitor asked me what turned out to be a provocative question. As we looked out across the expanse of the Great Lawn she asked, “Now, what was that used for?” and I have to admit I was a little thrown by the question. Lawns have become so controversial lately – the Obamas are eating their view and I know I’m not the only gardener systematically replacing the lawn at home with other kinds of plants. I think I sputtered that the Great Lawn was used for the view but the more I think about her question, the more I find to say.

In the gilded day and age when summer “cottages” (read “palatial estates”) were seldom lived in showcases of their owners’ wealth and importance in society, Blithewold was instead, a home – grand and luxurious to be sure – but lived in throughout the summer and other holidays and thoroughly enjoyed. Blithewold’s grounds were designed by John DeWolf, a landscape architect who worked closely with the family to create a varied landscape that was very useful in terms of their leisure activities and pleasure. Because of their interest in horticulture, an arboretum and gardens were cultivated and because of their love of the site, the views were preserved and enhanced. Doesn’t that sound like your garden too? The lawns were part of the package and served to knit the different landscape elements together.

looking up the Great Lawn to the mansion

The lawn is much larger than in looks in pictures – actually it’s larger than it looks in reality. Roughly ten acres is difficult to put in perspective without something measurable in the distance. The distance is so great that most of the children in the family used to ride their bikes all-the-way down the lawn to the beach. DeWolf designed the Great Lawn to undulate gently to the bay although, interestingly, one of the original plans includes a “haha” or hidden wall to separate and conceal a proposed cow pasture. (The Van Wickles kept cows – I didn’t know that before today – and with their large vegetable plot in the lawn below where the Display Garden is now, they also ate the view.)

biplane landed on the Great Lawn

The family obviously enjoyed their view since nearly every room in the mansion looks west toward the water and we know from records in the archives that they used the Great Lawn for all sorts of fun stuff. Fireworks were set off on the lawn every 4th of July to the delight of all of Bristol; tables were set up on the lawn for Marjorie and George Lyons wedding celebration; the enormous sails of the Herreshoff’s capsized America’s Cup contender Columbia were dried on the lawn; and in 1926 a biplane piloted by Julian Dexter, a family friend, landed there and took off again piloted by Marjorie Lyons herself (in the photo ready to fly, wearing a headscarf).

Nowadays the Great Lawn is still enjoyed primarily for the frame it puts around the view and as a gathering place for parties. But there’s nothing like an expanse of lawn to bring out an opinion or two on the subject of its worth, purpose and sustainability. I will say that the lawn this wet June is being mowed once a week – other lawns, twice obviously using a not insignificant amount of gas. Are you finding it difficult to keep up with (and justify) the mowing right now too?

There’s nothing that brings out the inner kid like grass under the toes and no better groundcover for lying back and studying the clouds. If and when you replace your lawn you’ll have to find those pleasures elsewhere. Take a run and tumble on Blithewold’s lawn instead and for those of you who find the ground too distant for a stretch, Fred and Dan’s sod bench in the Display Garden (“what is that thing?”) will be sittable any day now.

What do you use your lawn for?