Mardi Gras 2019 is Tuesday, March 5th
Bellingrath Gardens and Home
Mobile's Great Escape
Bellingrath Gardens and Home
Just a short drive out of Mobile leads visitors to a particularly stunning bit of eye candy. Bellingrath Gardens and Home represents a shining example of man and nature at their aesthetic best.
Set on the banks of the Fowl River, this 65-acre garden estate is open year-round displaying some of the finest examples of southern coastal flora (winter camellias, spring azaleas, roses in the summer, and chrysanthemums in the fall) along the United States Gulf Coast.
In 1932 with the iron grip of the Great Depression strangling the nation’s spirit, a destitute public hungered for signs that the good life was still possible. In Mobile, Alabama they longed to see the gardens that Bessie Bellingrath, the wife (and former stenographer) of local businessman Walter Bellingrath had been working on for the past five years.
In March of 1932, Walter and Bessie opened Bellcamp, Walter’s former fishing camp turned garden, for the day. Cars lined the road from Mobile 30 miles south to the gardens. The response was enough to convince the Bellingrath’s to keep the gardens open throughout the year, which they did starting in 1934. The decision to keep the gardens open to satisfy a curious public is understandable given the Bellingrath’s penchant for doing good works in the community.
As hard times wore on through the 1930s, Bessie was known to stop her car in front of the homes of Mobilians who were most in need. She would offer large sums of money for insignificant plants or bushes. In this way she was able to improve the gardens, and (more importantly) allow the homeowners to keep their dignity while providing for their families.
In 1917, Walter Bellingrath purchased 60 acres along the Fowl River at the insistence of his doctor who counseled the businessman to “learn how to play”. Initially, the property consisted of a trio of rundown structures amidst overgrown coastal swampland, more closely akin to jungle than the formal gardens they were destined to become.
Twelve years later (in 1927), under Bessie’s watchful eye, and with the help of close friend and local architect George B. Rogers, the next five years would see the Bellingrath’s unruly bayou getaway transformed into a lush, stylized garden paradise.
Today, the garden’s attractions include the Bayou Boardwalk, Mirror Lake, the Great Lawn, the Asian-American Garden, a butterfly garden, The Rockery, Fountain Plaza, and the Bellingrath Rose Garden.
When the Bellingrath’s decided to open their property to year-round visitation, they wanted to be closer to the property to oversee operations. In 1935 they had the Bellingrath Home built, and they permanently relocated from their residence in downtown Mobile.
The Bellingrath Home is a sort of “Who’s Who” of early 20th century Mobile architecture. Ironwork
and columns were taken from the Southern Hotel at the interssection of Water St. & Conti St. Flagstone walks were taken from downtown Mobile. The walk stones were made of slate that was originally used as ballast aboard early sailing vessels arriving from England. In exchange for the flagstones, the Bellingrath’s paid to have concrete poured in their place.
The Bellingrath’s had no children, but kept the house filled with guests. Accordingly, the dining table was often set for its full compliment of sixteen. And, because Mrs. Bellingrath liked a properly set table, and deplored the rush of setting the table for last minute guests, it remained set for sixteen at all times.
Other decorative elements in the house include fine antique furniture, English and American silver, American and Irish cut glass and crystal, and European porcelain. Additionally, the house boasts a set of 16 sterling silver cups given to Walter from friends, families, and businesses on the occasion of his 80th birthday. This was also the day that Walter announced formation of a foundation charged with ensuring that Bellingrath Home and Gardens would be maintained and developed for years to come, and would not be reclaimed by the wetlands along the Fowl River which runs just behind the Bellingrath Home.
Tour & Dinner Cruise
While visiting Bellingrath Gardens and Home (from March through November), visitors can relax and enjoy a stately pleasure (or dinner) cruise aboard the Southern Belle riverboat as it makes its way along the wooded banks of the Fowl River. Travelers are advised to keep their eyes open for all manor of wildlife as the boat follows the river’s serpentine course through bayou country.
Happily, Bellingrath Home and Gardens remains in fine form throughout the year, and stands as a shining reminder of Mobile society in days gone by, and of the natural beauty of the Gulf Coast. For history buffs, the home offers a glimpse at Gulf Coast history, and the social dynamics along this stretch of the Gulf Coast. For horticulturists, the gardens are 65 acres of pure inspiration. And for nature lovers and the “sit back and relax” crowd, the river cruise is an ideal opportunity to view the little-known Fowl River.
1. The exterior of the Bellingrath Home
2. The interior of the Bellingrath Home.
3. Sunset on the Fowl River.