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Feature article published in Block Island Magazine

‘No More A Secret Garden’
Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum, Bristol

A 33-acre botanical garden, arboretum and 45-room mansion on the Narragansett Bay is not easy to hide, yet somehow Rhode Island has managed to do it. Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum has the rare distinction of being one of only two other arboreta situated on salt water and of being home to one of the largest Giant Sequoia east of the Rocky Mountains. Yet even Rhode Islanders will admit to having never visited Blithewold, even if they have heard of it. But then if you’re from the West Bay the East Bay is a long way away?

Rhode Islanders take rather eccentric pride in being hidden from the world, and from never leaving the State. It is part of the resoundingly irresistible charm of this part of the world. But, this ‘secret garden’ thing can’t go on. Blithewold is far too beautiful to remain hidden - it must be shared.

“Blithewold is one of only two arboreta in the country situated on salt water.”

Blithewold was built over 100 years ago as a summer retreat for a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman and his family. But, in an area replete with mansions what makes this mansion a little different from those nearby is its family-oriented and utter down-to-earth flavor.

Augustus Van Wickle graduated from Brown University in 1876 and so was already somewhat familiar with, and liked, Rhode Island. An impulsive purchase of a 72-foot steam yacht, ‘The Marjorie’, in 1895 created a need for a mooring. The property on the Narragansett Bay seemed to offer the Van Wickles and their one young daughter Marjorie, the yacht’s namesake, all they could possibly want in a summer home. Van Wickle’s wife Bessie, a very accomplished horticulturist, had longed for a place to put down roots, literally. Her fondest desire was to establish a garden and arboretum. And so Blithewold came into being - Blithewold meaning “happy woodland.”

“But this 'secret garden' thing can’t go on.”

The Van Wickles first house, built in 1896, was a large shingled Queen Anne style house. Tragedy struck the family, however, in 1898 when Augustus Van Wickle was killed in a skeet shooting accident leaving Bessie expecting their second child. Their daughter Augustine who was born just five months after her father’s death. As Blithewold held so much of the family Bessie had no desire to leave. She and the girls continued to summer at Blithewold and when, in 1901 Bessie married William McKee, an old friend of Augustus and a Boston businessman, they continued to make Blithewold their summer retreat. For the McKees summer at Blithewold was a long and wonderful time. Bessie began her “summer” stay in early spring, and remained well into the fall to be close to her garden.

Tragedy struck again when, in 1906, the house burned to the ground not quite ten years after it was built. The family was in residence but unable to do anything to extinguish the fire. It burned slowly and inexorably for there was not enough water pressure to douse the flames. The fire was a devastatingly painful blow for the family, but with the help of many people from Bristol they were at least able to rescue most of the furnishings. Within two years a second and grander house was built in the same location and it is the 45-room mansion that stands today. This second mansion was crafted along the lines of an English manor house but most of the furnishings are those saved from the first house. The long, narrow design of the mansion, from the Boston architectural firm of Kilham and Hopkins, provides each room with a full view of the Narragansett Bay, and of the grounds.

“The house burned slowly and inexorably for there was not enough water pressure to douse the flames.”

Good gardening had been going on at Blithewold for many years before the Van Wickles purchased the property. The former owner, John Gardner, had planted many exotic trees and designed what is now known as the Enclosed Garden: a large lawn area surrounded today by several different kinds of chamaecyparis, cryptomeria, rhododendron, spruce and hemlock. Weeping sophora, thujopsis and taxus species are planted near the edges of this garden, but the centerpiece is the 100-foot-tall giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum.

The sum of the mansion, gardens and arboretum is greater than the parts, and yet the gardens and arboretum stand alone in their beauty - a wonderful horticultural resource set beside the Narragansett Bay it is to be visited in all the seasons. A staggering number of daffodils appear to herald the early spring each year, and when the leaves fall from the more than 1,500 exotic and native trees the grounds blaze with color. The towering bamboo grove becomes a magnet for children and adults alike, and the huge display gardens overwhelm visitors with a lavish array of flowers, many of which are cut for use in the house. An elegantly designed rock garden nestles beside the water’s edge flanked by an oriental water garden and a sweeping 10-acre lawn, one of two on the property. The enclosed rose garden both welcomes and bids farewell to visitors who enter through the vine-clad Moon Gate.

Blithewold’s contributions to historic preservation and public education have been significant on both national and regional levels. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is individually listed with the Bristol Historic District Commission. The estate has been the recipient of many awards and citations for its commitment to garden preservation and public outreach.

The history of Blithewold as a public garden began in 1976 when the Van Wickle’s daughter Marjorie Van Wickle Lyon bequeathed the property to the Heritage Trust of Rhode Island upon her death. The property came to the Heritage Trust along with most of the furnishings, some of which had been saved from the first fire, and an endowment of $1.2 million.

Blithewold’s success, however, came at a price. Over the decade prior to 1998 the Heritage Trust had turned to this endowment to meet the estate’s growing operating expenses. Consequently annual deficits virtually depleted the original $1.2 million leaving the Trust with no choice but to contemplate closing Blithewold, or to entertain alternative options that would have rendered the estate inaccessible to the public.

“...a wonderful horticultural resource...”

Within weeks of threatened closure, working together with The Garden Conservancy of Cold Spring, NY, a group of passionately dedicated members of Blithewold formed as Save Blithewold, Inc. (SBI) to raise the money necessary to prevent the loss of Blithewold. In less than one month SBI was able to raise more than $600,000 which enabled them to approach the Heritage Trust Board and make them an offer they simply could not ignore. In the face of such an outpouring of support for Blithewold the Board of the Trust graciously stepped down as managers of the property and agreed to negotiate a handover lease agreement with Save Blithewold, Inc. This agreement took effect on March 1, 1999.

Save Blithwold, Inc. is a dynamic group of gardening and preservation enthusiasts who are determined to make Blithewold the nationally known destination it should always have been. The vision for the future is stellar, and all concerned are eager to bring Blithewold into the fold of outstanding American gardens and landscapes. Over the past year Blithewold has received a huge infusion of creative energy from those already involved with SBI, and from newcomers who see Blithewold’s preservation as a mission worth embracing. Fund raising is, of course, very high on the current agenda and many activities are planned for 2000 to accomplish this. One such event is GARDENS OPEN FOR BLITHEWOLD, two special tours of private notable gardens, the first in June in Watch Hill & Weekapaug, RI, and the second in August in Westport, MA. (See attached article.)

For more information about Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum call 253-2707 or visit the website at