35,000 visitors come to the Blithewold Mansion each year. Although not part of the Newport historic mansions, its popularity is not related to the accoutrements of the Gilded Age of overindulgence. Rather, this educational, environmental and historic garden estate has so much more to offer.
Augustus and Bessie Van Wickle bought 70 acres of property along the waterfront in Bristol, Rhode Island. They named it Blithewold, which means "happy woodland" in Olde English.
Bessie's vision was to establish a horticultural sanctuary and Augustus envisioned a large Queen Ann style mansion overlooking the estate and the waterfront. The Van Wickle's lived at Blithewold from May to November with intermittent returns for winter holidays and family celebrations.
Initial steps began in 1896 when the Great Lawn was gently grade. This was followed by the planting of some unusual plant and tree specimens. The southern portion of the property became the location for a golf course and club house.
Fine sand was imported from Martha's Vineyard island and a top-rate sandy beach was established along the waterfront as well as boat docks, bath-houses and floating rafts for swim-jumping.
Untimely Demise of Augustus
Augustus was a skeet-shooter ...unfortunately. This led to his untimely early death in 1898. Besides Bessie, Augustus left two daughters. Marjorie was born in 1883. Bessie was pregnant at the time of Augustus' death. Augustine was born in 1898, several months after the death of her father.
Three years later, Bessie met and married William McKee who was a longtime friend of her late husband as well as a Boston businessman. Together, the McKees established their reputation for hospitality, gracious garden parties and gatherings of family and friends.
Untimely Demise of Blithewold
The well-cared for mansion was consumed by a slow fire in 1906. The people of Bristol assisted in the removal of most furniture, furnishings, fireplaces and bathtubs. Their kind helpfulness saved the "essence" of the mansion and defined the atmosphere of the newer and grander mansion which was built on the same site in 1907. This time the style chosen was that of an English Country Manor.
Once again, Bessie worked with the landscape designer who was responsible for the initial work on the first mansion. Now, the two began adding both the practical and the unusual to the mansion landscape.
It was a small tree when it was planted, but now visitors can gaze sky-high at a 90-foot giant sequoia tree! There were ponds and stone walls strategically placed as well as the formal perennial garden, a working and growing vegetable garden and a floral cutting garden.
Along with the mansion at Blithewold, Bessie's daughter Marjorie inherited her mother's talent for cultivating plants. Marjorie and her husband, George Lyon, came to live permanently at the mansion after the death of her parents. They planned and developed the arboretum and nurtured rare plants.
In 1976, Marjorie left her garden estate, a significant endowment and a significant operating deficit to a non-profit organization. The deficit brought the non-profit to consider sale of this beautiful property – to a developer.
When the word got out, a group of concerned citizens managed to raise $650,000 for operating funds until a more permanent solution to the dilemma could be found. This small group of people took over the management of Blithewold under a 99-year lease. Their commitment to financially accountable administration would, they felt, avoid a fiscal "close call" in the future.
Since the takeover of this estate in 1999, concentration has focused upon building dedicated support from the community at large. Enthusiastic horticulturists came forward to work on increasing earned income, enhancing the quality of care for the estate, assisting in the interpretation of the mansion and its grounds and gardens.
This management group, who became known as Save Blithewold, Inc., laid the groundwork for the achievement of sustainable balance between the endowment fund, the earned income and annual fundraising. Their success shows clearly as they have:
>> Grown their member base to 1300
>> Raised the operating budget above the 60% average through the expansion of the earned income accounts
>> Grown the attendance at their educational programs to today's 35,000 visitors
>> Assembling more than 200 dedicated volunteers for the sole purpose of running the property
>> Become a major historic and horticultural attraction due to press coverage and attention from professional organizations
>> $3.2 million in the endowment fund
The Board of Directors reviewed the six steps to success and approved a change in the corporate name in 2006. Blithewold, Inc. better reflected the transformation into a fiscally and administratively strong organization.
101 Ferry Road, Bristol, RI 02809 - Tel: 401-253-2707
Call for information about classes, events, blooms and tours.
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