Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blithewold


A rainy, dark day found my daughter and I touring Blithewold Mansion in Bristol, Rhode Island. Because of the weather we were the only visitors at the mansion for the two hours we spent there. What bliss to have the three lovely docents all to ourselves. Perhaps they did not think so as I peppered them with questions as I often do when I am face to face with a romantic house and its long-departed inhabitants.

Blithewold is a 33 acre estate - a spectacular property with lawns and gardens that sweep down to Narragansett Bay. Even more charming is the story of the seemingly social and generous family who built the home and gardens, the Van Wickles/McKees.

One of the daughters, Augustine Van Wickle, I found to be most intriguing, nee adorable. She was a beautiful child who grew into a sought-after debutant and then a wife and mother. One of her daughters is still living and now in her 80's.

I was enchanted by Augustine's sweet bedroom on the second floor with its windows opening to the bay. The little girl touches, such as the hopping birds on the handpainted wallpaper, the meticulously dressed china dolls, and the colorful Delft tiles surrounding the fireplace, gave clues to the lass who once inhabited this happy place. Most dear of all was a framed poem about the glory of pansies, enthusiastically penned in a child's hand and signed by Augustine at age 8.

Other corners of the mansion were just as magical. I became giddy over the massive linen closet between the 2nd floor hallway and the bedroom of older sister Marjorie Van Wickle. I could only imagine the pretty linens, stiffly folded, stacked, and tucked away with lavender sprigs. For today, I had to content myself by oogling the large sterling Tiffany tea set covered with tiny embossed daisies, that sat shiny and majestic on the linen closet's shelf.

A servant's bedroom/sewing room contained an open handwritten letter to the lord and master, William McKee (Marjorie and Augustine's step-father), outlining certain acts of thievery and debauchery witnessed by the female servant upon the estate's butler-in-chief. What ensued is unknown but the letter made for endless ruminations and entertainment for my daughter and I on the ride home.

From all accounts, Mrs. McKee (Bessie Van Wickle McKee) was an extremely hospitable hostess who filled her home with friends and family that she encouraged to stay for weeks at a time. There was plenty to occupy her guests, including sailing and swimming in the sea.

To me, Blithewold appeared to be very livable. Compared to the nearby Newport Mansions, Blithewold is a tiny mansion more in keeping with an expansive English country home.

Alas, the heavy rain prevented my daughter and I from exploring the spectacular gardens which includes a greenhouse and a tremendously old sequoia. I intend to return for the Christmas event to witness the extravagant two story Christmas tree and partake in an afternoon tea with music.

Fortunately for all of us, the McKee/Van Wickle's were a family of pack rats. We have benefited from the many letters, diaries, kitchen and entertainment records, bills, and assorted ephemera that has allowed for the curators to reconstruct the life of Blithewold (and I could see that it was truly a living breathing thing) as well as the very loveable family that occupied it so many years ago.

http://www.blithewold.org/

2 comments:

  1. I love touring historic homes. This one sounds quiet fascinating. I will put it on my to see list if I ever get the chance to visit Rhode Island.

    By the way, I love your blog.

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  2. Thank you jomamma! So sorry I haven't posted much - I was studying for a required exam for work. I'll be back more often now. Do see Blithewold some day. You will be enchanted!

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