Before Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum was the historic house museum, popular venue, and of course, host to stunning Christmas displays and programs, it was a home. Like many Rhode Island mansions, it was a “country place” – a secondary residence to get away from the city, popular among families with new fortunes to enjoy the health benefits of fresh air in a rural setting. Augustus and Bessie Van Wickle purchased Blithewold in 1894. Both were from wealthy Pennsylvania coal families, and similar to today, Augustus attended Brown and fell for the Ocean State – so much so that the famous Van Wickle gates at Brown were his gift to the university.
Located at 101 Ferry Road, the house is in the English Country Manor style revitalized during the Arts and Crafts movement in England in the latter half of the 19th century. The home is situated on the property by design to maximize views of Narragansett Bay and Poppasquash Point from its many windows. One reason Augustus and Bessie chose the estate, which they named in Old English for “happy woodland,” was its existing gardens and extraordinary trees. Bessie was an enthusiastic gardener who had inherited her mother’s interest in horticulture. The then 70-acre estate gave her the opportunity to create new garden spaces throughout the property with the help of landscape designer and Bristolian John DeWolf.
Bessie had an eye for beauty and good design. She worked closely with the architects in the design of the mansion. A collector of art and antiques, Bessie also sought help from antiques dealer Samuel Dean from Boston, who was responsible for sourcing many of the items found at Blithewold today.
Augustus and Bessie had a daughter Marjorie who spent summers at Blithewold. Later, they would have a second daughter, Augustine, born five months after Augustus died in a shooting accident. The family enjoyed outdoor activities, and Marjorie and Augustine both loved gardening. Also a talented watercolorist, Marjorie would spend the next 80 years of her life dedicated to interpreting the landscape at Blithewold through art.
The sum of all its parts, Blithewold was created deliberately. Here’s a bit of text from Bessie’s recounting of its history: “… the plan was to create a park with distinctive features using the house as a centre.” She continues, “everywhere nature’s bounteous gifts have served, under man’s skillful guidance, to create an estate in which new beauties are constantly revealed and the perfect accord between architecture and grounds is ever apparent.”
Tree Callanan, director of communications and visitor experience at Blithewold, offers, “When you hear the word mansion, especially in Rhode Island, you immediately think of a building at a much larger scale. Blithewold is smaller and less ornate than you expect. The scale of the house lends itself to a very welcoming and comfortable feeling. Our visitors are constantly saying how cozy the house feels and how they could imagine themselves living here.” She adds, “This year’s holiday theme is ‘Life by the Bay’ and looks back at the Van Wickle family’s activities on and by beautiful Narragansett Bay as the inspiration for all the site’s indoor decorations.”
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