The Art of Living: Bellingrath Gardens and Home

Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography courtesy of Bellingrath Gardens & Home.

One of the Deep South’s most admired attractions, Bellingrath Gardens and Home is located along the scenic Fowl River 20 miles southwest of Mobile, Alabama. It is truly one of my favorite attractions in the South. On my bucket list is to visit Bellingrath Gardens every season.

History Of The Bellingrath Gardens
Upon the advice of his physician, Dr. Paul McGehee (the grandfather of Tom McGehee, Museum Director for Bellingrath Gardens and Home), Walter Bellingrath, president of the regional Coca-Cola Bottling Company, was told to “learn how to play,” and he advised Walter to buy a fishing camp immediately. The property, which the Bellingraths purchased in 1917 on a bluff above the Fowl River, consisted of two abandoned cabins amidst fallen trees and debris from the severe hurricane of 1916. Bessie, Walter’s wife, who was passionate about flowers, improved the looks of the place by bringing down a few azaleas from their Mobile home. The overflow made its way to “Bellecamp,” as it was called.

The 65-acre garden estate made its grand debut in the spring of 1932 while a national garden club meeting was being held in Mobile. When the Bellingraths ran an advertisement in the “Mobile Press Register” inviting the public to view “Bellecamp” free of charge during the peak of its azalea season on Sunday, April 7, around five thousand attendees crowded the roads leading to the property, and the local police force had to be called to direct traffic. Stunned by the overwhelming response, the couple decided to keep the Gardens open year-round, beginning in 1934.

Gradually the property was transformed (with the help of prominent Mobile architect George B. Rogers) into a sprawling landscape of English-inspired gardens and a rambling English Renaissance manor.

Bellingrath Home To Celebrate A Milestone
“The home of the Bellingraths turns 80 in July,” said Sally Pearsall Ericson, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Bellingrath Gardens and Home. “The home’s ground breaking was in 1934, and the home was completed in 1936.”

The home is a combination of English Renaissance and a Gulf Coast look with the black wrought ironwork that came from the old Southern Hotel in Mobile.

Guests are invited to tour the home with its original furnishings and extensive decorative-arts collection.

On June 15 at 10 am Thomas (Tom) McGehee, Museum Director for Bellingrath Gardens and Home since January of 1994, will speak about the history and construction of the Bellingrath home. His presentation will be included in the garden/home admission on that date. Lunch will be served in the Magnolia Room Café followed by a 30-minute power point lecture presentation and a guided tour of Bellingrath Home.

“Most people build a grand home and then the gardens,” said McGehee. In that capacity he oversees the 15-room Bellingrath Home and its collection of original decorative arts and antiques as well as the Delchamps Collection of Boehm Porcelain.

Recently McGeheeattended a 60-plus year-old summer program at Attingham, an English country house, where he studied English country houses and gardens.

I asked McGehee what he learned at Attingham that applies to Bellingrath.

“When you see these British gardens, you realize how much the architect of the gardens at Bellingrath was looking to England in terms of the layout of the property. You can always pretend you’re in an English country estate at Bellingrath except for the fact that you’ve got Spanish moss and camellias and tropical flowers blooming in the summer here, which they would not have in England. The curving pathways that meander around are surprising and that is exactly what England was doing in the 16th and 17th century, going away from formal French gardens. They wanted the look to be more natural. English flagstone walkways beckon visitors to linger and explore on self-guided tours. The Bellingrath home looks English with its slate roof, and the downspouts for the drain with the initial of the big B are typically English.”

McGehee stated that in the Bellingrath home instead of an entrance hall there is a living hall, which is an English concept going back to the medieval times.­ Bellingrath has a multipurpose room with a grand staircase. “We have a lot of English decorative arts, Chippendale furniture and a big fireplace,” he said.

Life At Bellingrath
McGehee shared many interesting facts about the Bellingraths’ lifestyle. The couple built their 10,500-square-foot mansion in the middle of the property that was open to the public seven days a week. That meant that 365 days a year in those days people walked past their open windows all day long. Mr. Bellingrath was notorious for walking outside and visiting with guests.

According to a diary which revealed the names of the guests, the first meal was served in the house on July 4, 1936. Mrs. Bellingrath never knew how many people would show up at her table, so she asked that the table always have 12 place settings.

McGehee’s favorite rooms in the mansion are the dining room and the glass-enclosed dining porch with a view of the Fowl River because it was a room that the Bellingraths used the most. (These rooms are also my favorite rooms in the mansion.)

Mrs. Bellingrath loved to shop. “She did major league shopping and there is such a wide array of objects in the Bellingrath mansion,” said McGehee.  One example is a porcelain ink stand in the upstairs hall and lots of antique silver. She bought from the best antique shops on Royal Street in New Orleans, and she shopped in New York City.

“The Bellingrath Mansion is one of the very few museum homes in the world to feature the complete furnishings once enjoyed by its original occupants,” said McGehee.

Bellingrath Gardens
The Bellingrath Gardens and Home encompass approximately 900 acres along the Fowl River. Sixty-five acres are cultivated with annual blooms and continuous color.

A new rose garden on the Great Lawn is being installed. It will be centered with a cast iron urn fountain and feature three fern-patterned benches.

Next to Christmas, spring is the busiest season at Bellingrath Gardens. Tulips, daffodils and hyacinths will knock you over with fragrance. Gardeners are putting in lilies and hydrangeas, and spring flowers are coming up. In April the award-winning Rose Garden and the Ecological Boardwalk are among the many highlights of the season. Visit the Annual Blooming Schedule link on this website:

Some of the azalea bushes are well over 125 years old. The Bellingraths’ collection of azaleas at their Mobile home (Sadly it was demolished in 1971.) was the city’s largest. They brought some of those azaleas to Bellingrath. Miss Bessie’s nephew told McGehee that one azalea was so large that they had to close the Causeway to bring it over the Cockran Bridge, through Mobile, into the garden!

Children enjoy the waterfront –the river and lake and the Ecological Bayou Boardwalk— because they see so many kinds of fish. They also love running on the bridge.

The most special flower is the early November cascading chrysanthemum because you don’t see them anywhere else. It is the largest outdoor display of cascading chrysanthemum in the United States. This display was created after Mrs. Bellingrath’s death. The cuttings came from Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia (Longwood got their cuttings from China.). “They are very light sensitive like a poinsettia,” added McGehee.

The gardeners bring the chrysanthemums to the Bellingrath home, gallery, Asian Garden and Mirror Lake Bridge, and they hang in colors of yellow, gold, white and shades of dark reds. “They hang off balconies, bridges and in gardens,” said McGehee.

Bellingrath-Morse Foundation
Bessie Morse Bellingrath died in 1943 at the age of 64. Walter D. Bellingrath died in 1955 at the age of 86. At the age of 80, Walter Duncan Bellingrath publicly announced the creation of a non-profit foundation to assure the continued existence of his beloved gardens in perpetuity. The Foundation’s Board of Directors and the staff maintain, not expand, what the Bellingraths created. The foundation benefits Rhodes College in Memphis, TN; Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, AL, and Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL.

What To Know
Bellingrath Gardens & Home
12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd.
Theodore, Alabama 36582
(251) 973-2217
(800) 247-8420

Hours of Operation
Daily: 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Museum Home Tours daily beginning at 9:00 a.m. Last tickets sold at 3:30 p.m. The Magnolia Café opens at 11 am daily. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.

Don’t Miss A “Blooming” Thing!
Attend the Bellingrath Bouquet of Events

May 8: Mother’s Day Concert
May 20: ”Miss Bessie’s” Birthday
June 1-July 27: Summertime Wonderful Wednesdays
August 5: Founder’s Day. Celebrate Mr. Bellingrath’s birthday!
October 22: Boo at Bellingrath
November 6-21: Outdoor Cascading Mum Display & Festival Bloom Out
November 25-December 31: Magic Christmas Lights (closed December 25)