To wrap up the Mobile Mansion Series, I’m going to give you one last gorgeous historic home to visit while you’re still hanging around the city. It’s a bit of a drive to get to and it doesn’t have much of a Civil War legacy to it, but it’s worth visiting nonetheless.
Bellingrath wasn’t always a gorgeous, sprawling estate with colorful gardens. In 1917, Walter Bellingrath and his wife, Bessie Mae, purchased the 25-acre property of Lisloy Club, a men’s fishing club, overlooking Fowl River just half a dozen or so miles from Mobile. At the time, it only had a couple of rustic cabins to accommodate the patrons. The Bellingraths expanded the cabins and dubbed it “Belle Camp”. It wasn’t for another nine years that Belle Camp would receive electric lighting. At this time in history, electric lighting wasn’t something new, but it was certainly expensive. How could Walter afford this?
It all began in 1903 when Walter came to Mobile to take over the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. He became one of the first ten bottlers of the beloved soft drink. But the operation wasn’t as smooth and wide-spread as it is now. Walter had to bottle the drink by a hand and foot powered bottling machine and drive a wagon from restaurant to restaurant to sell his product. It was hard work, but it paid off. He expanded his plant on Water Street and worked long hours until he could sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. In November of 1906, he married his stenographer, Bessie Mae Morse. In 1902, while they were still at Belle Campe, Walter expanded his enterprises and purchased the National Mosaic Tile Company. Some of his decorative cement tiles can still be seen in downtown Mobile at the Saenger Theater and the Mobile History Museum.
But the inspiration to turn Belle Camp into the grand Bellingrath Home we see today didn’t come until the Bellingraths took a trip to Europe for several months in 1927. They were inspired by the regal gardens of the Old World and wanted a piece of it to enjoy at
home. They hired Architect George B. Rogers to transform their home. Bushes of azaleas and other colorful native plants were brought in from nurseries all along the Gulf Coast and by 1929, they had completed the first Azalea Trail, which Walter decided to open for public viewing upon the recommendations of his neighbors. From there, it only got bigger. The Grotto was finished in another two years, built from flagstones taken from the very streets of Mobile when they switched to concrete. Within another year, the Rockery, Mirror Lake and bridge, Summer House, Fountain Plaza and waterfront were added to this growing estate.
The Bellingraths open Belle Camp for public visits in April of 1932, creating the worst traffic jam as citizens flocked to pay the 50-cent admission to see the Bellingrath masterpiece. But the construction was far from finished. Walter goes to his genius architect and asks for a new home for the Bellingraths. While admission to the gardens expand to year-round and the price comes up a bit, Roger gets to work on his plans. In 1935, they break ground on the 10,500 square foot mansion. The design, much like the gardens, were drawn directly from the European style that started it all for the Bellingraths. The exterior is reminiscent of French, English, and Italian architecture, with a courtyard as the home’s centerpiece. The house is not much more than one room deep all around this courtyard, but one would never know it as they walk from one grand hall to the other.
Mrs. Bellingrath meticulously chose antiques from across the south to fill her home and all 15 rooms were given the same care. Furniture from New Orleans graced the living room, porcelain from the 1800s brought life and color to every mantle and tabletop, the dining room – the biggest room in the home – is decked with silver and crystal. The bathrooms were directly influenced by a visit to the World’s Fair at a time when indoor plumbing was definitely a luxury. Tile from the Walter’s tile company covered the couple’s favorite room in the home, the screened in dining room that overlooks Fowl River. The pantry just off the huge kitchen is packed with dinnerware and servingware from around the globe and throughout the centuries. One prized piece is a silver gravy boat from before the Revolutionary War times. It’s hard to describe the eye-feast that awaits those who take a tour at Bellingrath. By the time construction ended in 1936, their gardens had grown to include a massive conservatory and The Rose Garden. The Bellingraths had no children, but were always eager to host their nieces and nephews in the home, along with droves of horticultural fans.
If I may be so bold to say, the Bellingraths were like the Rockefellers of the Gulf Coast. Not only do they have this grand home and gardens, they helped to endorse local churches and colleges, playing a key role in the community with their support and membership. They were first published in Better Homes and Gardens in 1938, escalating their fame to momentous heights. Everyone wanted to see the Bellingrath gardens for themselves. During the peak of the Depression, the common citizen needed a distraction from their bleak lives and the Bellingraths obliged, providing them a beautiful escape from reality.
Sadly, Mrs. Bellingrath would not enjoy her home for long. She suffered from ill health for most of her adult life and in 1943, she died of a heart attack. She would only live in the home for 8 years. Walter continued to live in the home for the rest of his life. Upon his 80th birthday, he announced the formation of the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation. The Foundation was to maintain the Gardens and Home as a “fitting memorial to my wife.” After he passed in August of 1955, the home itself was open to the public for viewing.
The rest, as we say, is history. New garden displays were added and through the many hurricanes and storms that hit the tender Gulf Coast, Bellingrath Gardens and Home has stood strong to the forces of nature and time. Today, visitors can expect a treat for the senses, no matter what time of year you visit. There is always something in bloom and the employees at the entrance building can provide a map and list of everything for you to see. A giftshop awaits at the end of the tour, along with the Magnolia Café for those who want a quick bite to eat before continuing their journey. The whole 65 acres of manicured gardens today could easily take you a couple of hours, so allow enough time to really absorb everything. The tour itself is only about thirty or so minutes. If you come during the winter season, be sure to check the schedule for Magic Christmas in Lights, where the beauty of Bellingrath can be experienced even in the dark.
Now, on a personal note, my visit to Bellingrath was the first day off away from my job for over two weeks. We had just experienced a buyout from another franchiser and things were getting crazy. We were training all the time and there was a lot of uncertainty about pay and who would stay in the company and who would go. My job in particular was affected quite a bit, hence fifteen straight days of work madness. Bellingrath was to be my escape. I set my phone on silent and only pulled it out to take pictures of all these beautiful gardens. I spent a couple of hours roaming the park and even set aside a good chunk of time to sit in front of the Mirror Lake and realign myself. The Bellingraths didn’t build this place for any one person in particular. They built it for the community to enjoy. They built it to share and give back to those they cared for. So, while they didn’t build it for me, I felt as if they were reaching through time to tell me, “Everything’s going to be all right.” Because as long as there’s still something beautiful left in the world, there is always hope.
Address: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road
Theodore, AL 36582
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The Gardens are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days.
Gardens & Bellingrath Museum Home Package
Children 5-12: $14.00
Children 0-4: Free
Children 5-12: $8.00
Children 0-4: Free