Blithewold Mansion, Bristol Rhode Island

Date added: November 28, 2022 Categories: Rhode Island House Mansion
View of main hall looking north, with main entrance vestibule at right, staircase in mid-ground, and living room in distance (1980)

Ground was broken for Blithewold in 1895, but the house was destroyed by fire only eleven years later in 1906. The present house dates from 1907.

The property which became Blithewold has a long history of social gatherings. It was first developed as a summer retreat in the mid-nineteenth century by John Rogers Gardner, a prominent New York banker. While Mr. and Mrs. Gardner owned the property, it was the setting for visits and (following Mr. Gardner's death), rentals by numerous native and foreign luminaries, M. de Struvee, the Russian Minister to the United States, General Burnside, and Nelson W. Aldrich among others.

Coal baron Augustus Stout VanWickle, of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, purchased the property in 1894, having been impressed with Bristol while steam yachting across the bay from Narragansett, where he was summering that year. VanWickle made his fortune in various coal mining operations in Pennsylvania (Ebervale Coal Company and VanWickle, Stout, and Company) and was a trustee of the Peddie Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History. He is most well remembered in Rhode Island for his bequests to Brown University in Providence, which funded VanWickle Hall, the Administration Building (demolished in the 1960's), and VanWickle Gates, the highly ornamental gates to the college green through which all graduating classes have passed since they were built in 1901.

VanWickle died in 1898, leaving his wife, Bessie Pardee VanWickle (daughter of Ario Pardee, "the millionaire coal and iron merchant" from Hazleton, Pennsylvania) and two daughters, Marjorie, then fourteen, and Augustine, born after her father's death. Mrs. VanWickle married William L. McKee, then of Boston, in 1901. McKee prospered in the wholesale shoe business. At the time of his retirement in 1932 after fifty-three years of leathers and lasts, he was co-owner of the A. W. Tedcustle Company of Boston.

Mr. and Mrs. McKee saw to it that Blithewold was rebuilt following the 1906 fire. They continued the VanWickle's interest in yachts and yachting. They owned personally several fine steam yachts and sailing sloops and offered their lawn for the drying of the sails of the "Resolute," the Herreshoff-built America's Cup contender in the 1920 race run off Newport. (It is said that Blithewold's lawns were the only sward in town large enough to accommodate the sails.) The McKees also continued the traditions of hospitality associated with Blithewold. The estate was the scene for many parties and visits by illustrious personalities of the era, among whom were Admiral Sir William Arthur, of Port Arthur fame, and Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill. Other political and social luminaries visited as well and some of the most famous yachts of the day were tied up at the Blithewold dock. This social activity continued through World War I, gradually declining in the 1920's. Following the Depression, it was no longer feasible to maintain the house and grounds as they had been previously and social activities were further reduced. No longer could eight women, a butler, and a houseman for the house and eleven men for the grounds be kept on.

Mrs. McKee died in 1936 and Mr. McKee died in 1946. Thereafter Marjorie VanWickle Lyon bought out her sister Augustine's interest and summered there with her husband George Armstrong Lyon, an investment counselor with the Boston firm of Scudder, Stevens, and Clark. During Mrs. Lyon's tenure, 1946 until her death in 1976, the grounds of Blithewold were opened to the public on a selective basis and their landscape importance was increasingly recognized. In 1976 Mrs. Lyon was awarded the Garden Club of America's Horticultural Award, its highest honor. The award cited Mrs. Lyon's "horticultural knowledge, particularly in propagating the Sequoia Redwood in this climate, and her interest in the preservation of endangered species of plants and shrubs."

Acts of nature (the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954, the severe winters of 1918 and 1933), the maturation of plant materials, and the economic reality which can no longer support eleven maintenance men, have necessarily caused some changes to Blithewold's grounds. Essentially, however, the landscaping plan developed by John DeWolf between 1895 and 1912 remains surprisingly intact. DeWolf's 1895 landscaping plan is said to be still in the house and, when found, should prove instructive in understanding the evolution of the grounds through time.

Mrs. Lyon left Blithewold to the Heritage Foundation of Rhode Island which is operating it primarily as a horticultural museum and arboretum open to the public on a seasonal basis.

Building Description

Blithewold is a turn-of-the-century summer estate that includes a large house, several outbuildings, extensive gardens, and an arboretum on thirty-three acres of well-maintained land stretching westward from Ferry Road to Bristol Harbor overlooking Narragansett Bay. Built for a private owner in 1895 and 1907, Blithewold is currently owned by a private foundation and is operated as a horticultural museum. The estate formerly included 41.6 acres west of Ferry Road (as well as two additional lots east of the road), but part of the acreage was sold in 1933 and is now the site of St. Columban's Foreign Mission Society Seminary. This section of Bristol was the site of extensive and exclusive summer development in the last half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century. Some of the estates from these years still remain; but increasingly here, as elsewhere along Bristol's waterfront, large estates are being broken up for condominium or tract housing development.

Construction of Blithewold was begun following the purchase in September 1894, by coal magnate Augustus Stout VanWickle, of an earlier, less pretentious, summer estate owned by John Rogers Gardner. VanWickle engaged landscape architect John DeWolf to lay out the grounds and the New York architects Mead and Taft to design a new mansion to be placed west of the existing Gardner House. Ground was broken for Blithewold in 1895, but the house was destroyed by fire only eleven years later in 1906. The present house dates from 1907. Several of the outbuildings (the stables, well house, and summerhouse), however, and the basic outlines of gardens and arboretum date from the 1890s.

The forty-five room mansion, designed in the style of an English manor by Boston architects Kilham and Hopkins, is set well back from Ferry Road amid manicured lawns. It is a somewhat irregularly shaped, rectangular, three-story stucco and stone structure with an attached stucco and half-timbered servants wing on the south. The main section of the house is capped by a steeply-pitched, truncated gable roof of slate which is broken by three symmetrically spaced cross-gables and a series of third-story dormers. The central gable, finished in stone, rises above the main entrance which is sheltered by a wooden porte-cochere. On the west, or water side, the two flanking gables have porches on both the first and second stories; the central gable shelters a brick terrace on the ground level with a porch above it.

Blithewold Mansion, Bristol Rhode Island Original floor plan for Blithewold
Original floor plan for Blithewold

The main part of the mansion is laid out on an essentially symmetrical cross-axial plan. The front entrance vestibule opens directly into the hall, which in turn opens to a loggia on the west, overlooking the terrace. At a right angle to the hall is a long corridor leading from the living room on the north to the dining room on the south. Immediately at the right as one enters is the staircase, which rises from its landing in a straight run over the vestibule. Opposite the staircase, on the water side, is the billiard room. All the major rooms on the first floor have direct access to outside living spaces, reflecting the summer use of the property. The rooms vary in style. The living room is light and airy with a delicate plastered ceiling and classic mantlepiece (designed by Inigo Jones for Gloucester House, Picadilly, and rescued when that residence was demolished in 1902). The billiard room is smaller and cozier with natural oak woodwork and a stone fireplace lintel incised "Blithewold" which was saved from the original Blithewold. In contrast, the dining room is paneled in dark-stained oak and has a long carved table seating twenty.

The main staircase, with an elaborate Colonial Revival balustrade, leads up to an open balcony-like hall on the second floor. From this central gallery corridors lead to five bedrooms, each with its own bath, a powder room, and a servants' ironing room. All the bathrooms have fixtures with gold-plated handles, with taps for hot, cold, and salt water. The master bedroom on the north measures thirty-five by twenty-six feet and has hand-painted wallpaper murals and a Dutch delft-tiled fireplace surround. It also features an elaborate matched set of inlaid furniture, including two canopy beds and an assortment of bureaus, tables, and chairs. The room opens onto an outdoor sleeping porch that measures twenty-seven by nineteen feet. The other bedrooms are not so grand but all have fireplaces and most have patios overlooking the water. Marjorie VanWickle's bedroom is particularly interesting for its dark paneled finish and mixture of seventeenth-century antique and carefully executed reproduction furnishings. The third floor has always been called "Bachelor's Quarters" and contains five bedrooms and two baths.

The servants' wing, accessible to the main house on all three levels, contains a kitchen, pantry, flower arranging room, as well as a servants' sitting or dining room on the first floor and eight bedrooms with two baths above. The servants' wing also has its own porch.

The mansion has been little altered except for modernization of the servants' quarters to accommodate the full-time resident Executive Director of the museum.

A number of outbuildings remain with the house; the 1895 shingle-style stable or carriage house, now used for storage; the 1907 stucco garage with living quarters at either end, one section of which is now rented to the resident groundskeeper; the 1895 Colonial Revival well-house, in the middle of the front lawn; the octagonal shingle style summer house, with an open porch (1895); and a turn-of-the-century greenhouse, now "L" shaped because an original wing, a fern house, was removed and sold in the 1920s. Near the water at the end of the long allee known as "Lovers Lane" are a pump house, boat house, and dock visible only from the shore. The pump house was built in 1895 and is stone with wooden doors. The adjacent stone and frame boat house, partially rebuilt following the 1938 hurricane, was originally used as bathhouses.

Two foundations remain on the estate, one for an ice house next to the carriage house, and the other for an early greenhouse, now surrounded by the bamboo grove. A small house for the boatman was located near the dock, but the 1938 hurricane destroyed it, leaving no trace of its existence.

As interesting as the house, outbuildings, and family furnishings are, Blithewold is most noted for its gardens and arboretum, designed by John DeWolf, of Bristol and New York, over the period of 1895 to 1912. Immediately south of the mansion is a rose garden with a stone "moon gate" entrance (c.1910). Just north of the house is a small sunken garden (1910-1911). First laid out with formal beds defined by boxwood, the sunken garden was remodeled following the death of the boxwood after the severe winters of 1918 and 1933 and is now planted with perennial beds around a central grassy area. It is presently referred to as the north garden.

North of this garden is the "bosquet," a woodsy area also developed in 1910, planted with various groundcovers including vinca and pachysandra through which spring bulbs and wildflowers rise each year. At the center of the bosquet is a small fountain and nearby are located the graves of many of the owner's much-beloved dogs.

At the eastern edge of the bosquet is the summer house, and beyond it, the enclosed garden, a large lawn area surrounded by specimen trees including the estate's famous eighty-foot giant redwood, planted here in 1911 when it was ten feet tall. The enclosed garden is said to have been first laid out by John Gardner (d.1841), who planted its perimeter with larches, spruces, and English oaks; some of the spruces and oaks still survive.

North of the enclosed garden is a bamboo grove and to the west is a water garden, both inspired by oriental landscape tradition. The water garden is composed of two small irregularly shaped ponds bordered by grass and flowers, crossed by an arched stone bridge, and partly shaded by a Japanese weeping maple. A rock garden was incorporated nearby in 1929.

Directly east and west of the mansion are broad lawns. The western lawn, once used for tennis, is now kept mostly in tall grass and hayed; it extends meadow-like nine hundred feet to the shoreline. The eastern lawn, which extends two hundred and fifty feet to Ferry Road, is broken by the curving sweep and oval of the gravel driveway and by several specimen trees, including a large weeping beech, a silver maple, a cryptomeria, and a giant sequoia. The lawn is bordered along the road by a carefully built field-stone wall into which are set, at the south, the main entrance, two stone piers, capped with a delicate wrought-iron arch, and farther north, a small stone archway which formerly gave family members access from the wooded area surrounding the enclosed garden to Blithewold property east of Ferry Lane.

Some of the numerous original gravel and slate paths are still in use; others have been grassed over. Plantings along these paths originally included herbaceous borders interspersed with small shrubs; over the years, however, the shrubs have taken over. Other changes in the landscaping have resulted from the destruction caused by the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954; over four hundred trees on the property were lost.