Blithewold was built in 1908, to replace the Van Wickle family’s 1896 house, which burned down. It is considered to be one of the most authentic and intact examples of the Country Place Era in the U.S. It was a time when wealthy Americans, who had not inherited country manors, built their own. The architects, Kilham and Hopkins of Boston, were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England.
The turn-of-the-century is an era I love; my building in Boston was also built in the first decade of the 20th century. There’s never been a better era for gracious living. I was greeted in the front hall of Blithewold by a docent, who said I could wander around the house by myself. I liked this arrangement better than a formal tour as I could spend more time on the things that interested me and really soak up the atmosphere of the house. She also said it was permitted to take photos. I was pleased that, hot as it was outside, the stone house was quite cool and comfortable inside.
These photos of the central entrance hallway give an idea of the magnificent Colonial Revival woodwork.
To the left is the dark, oak paneled dining room, which was hard to photograph. The room runs across the depth of the house, with grand windows and window seats at both ends. Here afternoon tea is served by reservation at certain times of year (see website). I’m definitely coming back for that.
Beyond the dining room is one of my favorite features of the house — the butler’s pantry! I always love it in historic houses when we get to see the butler’s pantry. I have a butler’s pantry in my own home, but of course not on this scale. This one is lined on three sides with very tall, glass fronted cabinets for the family’s numerous sets of china (thirty, according to the information card!) and crystal. As someone who collects china, I really enjoyed looking at the china and reading about when they used the various sets–Royal Copenhagen for breakfast and everyday, a set with two crossed flags for the family yacht, another for dinners, another for birthdays and celebrations, and so on.
One of my other favorite rooms was the younger daughter Augustine’s bedroom, a rather small room furnished as it was when she was young. I liked the lightness of it.
All the family’s bedrooms were shown with tea or breakfast sets on the bed or a table, which delighted me.
There were so many interesting details and vignettes in the house, and I took the time to look at them.
The Blithewold estate includes thirty-three acres of lawns and gardens and an arboretum. Bessie Van Wickle, later Bessie McKee, the first lady of the house, and her older daughter Marjorie, who lived in the house until she died in 1976, were both keen gardeners and devoted themselves to the creation and maintenance of the gardens. It was hot on Saturday, but I managed to walk around a good part of the grounds by keeping to the shady paths.
The central hallway leads out to the terrace and the lawn, with a splendid view of Narragansett Bay.
I went out through the north porch on the side of the house, wishing so much that I could sit down at one of the tables and have a nice tall glass of iced tea. In England when you visit the stately homes, there always seems to be a tea room as part of the whole experience.
There was a lovely breeze on the porch, and I could see why the family often had afternoon tea there.
Some beautiful stone steps led down to the first garden.
I was there in the middle of the day, the sun was strong, and the garden was suffering a bit from the drought, so I couldn’t take really good photos of the gardens. Instead, I played around with some of the flower photos later. I loved these delicate pink flowers and the way the stems ray out against the blue water in the background.
For this little grouping of lavender flowers, I applied a “Polaroid fade” effect, which I rather like.
I made many variations of Queen Anne’s lace as a blue star, just for fun:
This dahlia reminded me of a Catherine wheel, that children’s plaything:
The pond in the garden was dried up completely from the drought, and I saw water lilies blooming in the mud. I loved the stone bench near the pond.
After three hours at the house and garden, I was desperate for food and especially water. I drove into the beautiful town of Bristol, a New England classic. I want to spend much more time strolling the streets looking at the houses another time. There’s also another historic house to visit, Linden Place.
I found the Beehive Café after a search and had an excellent veggie melt sandwich, with caramelized onions, mushrooms, red peppers, and tomatoes among other things, with a side of delicious fresh fruit included, and a large glass of the iced tea I’d been longing for. I can recommend this place for vegetarians as there were several choices (unusual). There was air conditioning upstairs, so my lunch was an enjoyable respite from the heat.
I finished my day in Bristol with a visit to Colt State Park, which was just a mile or two north of the center–and free! I walked for a mile or two along the promenade right along Narragansett Bay. It would have been exhilarating if it had been 20 degrees cooler with a stiff breeze. As it was, it was tolerable under the intense sun only because the humidity was relatively low and there was a slight breeze. It’s a beautiful place, and there appeared to be thousands of people enjoying the park on one of the last summer weekends; many of them were having picnics in the shady areas.
I had an easy drive back to Boston and was home before sunset. (I don’t like to drive in the dark with my older eyes.) My excursion to Bristol was most satisfactory, and I will definitely go back when Blithewold is decorated for Christmas and tea is served in the dining room. I think I’ll stay over a night in Bristol so I can walk around the town more and appreciate more of what it has to offer.