Historic Homes for the Holidays: Blithewold Mansion

Though visitors might find December an odd time to visit a home with such an extensive garden, Blithewold has plenty to offer this holiday season, with its gorgeous Christmas decorations and its grounds filled with winter plants and 50 specimen trees. Meaning “happy woodland” in Old English, Blithewold and its gardens, featured in our latest title, New England’s Historic Homes & Gardens, are stunning in all seasons.

While visiting Rhode Island, Augustus Van Wickle, heir to his father’s Pennsylvania coal mining business, did not intend to purchase a summer home—but when he impulsively bought a yacht, he needed a place to dock it and bought 70 acres of land on Narragansett Bay. Blithewold was completed in 1896, but sadly, Augustus died just two years later. The property remained with his wife, Bessie, and daughters until 1976, when it opened to the public. More misfortune befell the family, as the mansion was burned to the ground in 1906. The current structure, which preserves some of the architectural features from the original, was built the following year, and the furnishings have not been changed since Bessie originally decorated in 1910. The grounds are equally stunning, with a variety of perennials and trees, including a 90-foot-tall sequoia, one of the tallest trees east of the Rockies.

The Blithewold decorators have been planning for this holiday season since January, when they decided on this year’s theme, “Gifts of Nature,” a tribute to the family’s love of the outdoors. As soon as the regular season wrapped up on Columbus Day, they got straight to work preparing the house, a task which took them right up until Thanksgiving. The house will be open Tuesday through Sunday until January 1 (the grounds are open daily, year-round), at which point they will undoubtedly get back to work planning next year’s theme. The 18-foot-tall faux Canadian Spruce tree in the entrance hallway is the highlight of the decorations. A tradition since 1910, the tree ascends two stories, nearly touching the ceiling of the second floor. Each room in the mansion has its own smaller tree, as well as a theme—the master bedroom, for example, is covered in stars and glitter to represent its starry night theme.

Blithewold puts on many events throughout the holiday season. Go for one of their afternoon teas on Tuesdays and Fridays, or take the kids and go Wednesday afternoon for story time, where you can listen to fairy tales, drink warm cider, and even make your own charm crown. There are also holiday performances every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. They’re mostly musical performances, but on Thursday, December 15,  plan to attend a dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol by two local actors.


Blithewold Mansion
101 Ferry Road

Bristol, RI 02809
(401) 253-2707

Drive time from Boston: 1 hour
Drive time from Hartford: 2 hours

Curious about the Van Wickle/McKee family and the Blithewold estate? Pick up a copy of New England’s Historic Homes & Gardens at one of these local bookshops:

A Novel Idea, 54 State Street, Bristol
Barrington Books, 184 Country Road, Barrington
Island Books, 575 East Main Road #1, Middletown
Books on the Square, 471 Angell Street, Providence
Symposium Books, 240 Westminster Street, Providence

A long day of exploring is sure to leave you hungry. Stop by one of these local Bristol restaurants to refuel:

Persimmon, 31 State Street, for upscale seafood dishes. Perfect for a post-Blithewold date night.
Leo’s Ristorante, 365 Hope Street, for delicious and affordable Italian cuisine.
Ricotti Sandwich Shop, 11 Gooding Avenue, for the best sandwiches in Bristol.
Lobster Pot, 119 Hope Street, for award-winning chowder and gorgeous views.

This post is part of a larger series celebrating the sites included in our latest title, New England’s Historic Homes & Gardens, by Kim Knox Beckius with photography by William H. Johnson. See recent posts on the William Cullen Bryant Homestead, Hildene, Mark Twain House, and Victoria Mansion for fun fall and early winter getaway ideas!

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