The Great Lawn

a Great Lawn viewIt’s weird that I’m compelled to write about a lawn when the pink styrax is in bloom and the roses look so pretty but the other day a visitor asked me what turned out to be a provocative question. As we looked out across the expanse of the Great Lawn she asked, “Now, what was that used for?” and I have to admit I was a little thrown by the question. Lawns have become so controversial lately – the Obamas are eating their view and I know I’m not the only gardener systematically replacing the lawn at home with other kinds of plants. I think I sputtered that the Great Lawn was used for the view but the more I think about her question, the more I find to say.

In the gilded day and age when summer “cottages” (read “palatial estates”) were seldom lived in showcases of their owners’ wealth and importance in society, Blithewold was instead, a home – grand and luxurious to be sure – but lived in throughout the summer and other holidays and thoroughly enjoyed. Blithewold’s grounds were designed by John DeWolf, a landscape architect who worked closely with the family to create a varied landscape that was very useful in terms of their leisure activities and pleasure. Because of their interest in horticulture, an arboretum and gardens were cultivated and because of their love of the site, the views were preserved and enhanced. Doesn’t that sound like your garden too? The lawns were part of the package and served to knit the different landscape elements together.

looking up the Great Lawn to the mansion

The lawn is much larger than in looks in pictures – actually it’s larger than it looks in reality. Roughly ten acres is difficult to put in perspective without something measurable in the distance. The distance is so great that most of the children in the family used to ride their bikes all-the-way down the lawn to the beach. DeWolf designed the Great Lawn to undulate gently to the bay although, interestingly, one of the original plans includes a “haha” or hidden wall to separate and conceal a proposed cow pasture. (The Van Wickles kept cows – I didn’t know that before today – and with their large vegetable plot in the lawn below where the Display Garden is now, they also ate the view.)

biplane landed on the Great Lawn

The family obviously enjoyed their view since nearly every room in the mansion looks west toward the water and we know from records in the archives that they used the Great Lawn for all sorts of fun stuff. Fireworks were set off on the lawn every 4th of July to the delight of all of Bristol; tables were set up on the lawn for Marjorie and George Lyons wedding celebration; the enormous sails of the Herreshoff’s capsized America’s Cup contender Columbia were dried on the lawn; and in 1926 a biplane piloted by Julian Dexter, a family friend, landed there and took off again piloted by Marjorie Lyons herself (in the photo ready to fly, wearing a headscarf).

Nowadays the Great Lawn is still enjoyed primarily for the frame it puts around the view and as a gathering place for parties. But there’s nothing like an expanse of lawn to bring out an opinion or two on the subject of its worth, purpose and sustainability. I will say that the lawn this wet June is being mowed once a week – other lawns, twice obviously using a not insignificant amount of gas. Are you finding it difficult to keep up with (and justify) the mowing right now too?

There’s nothing that brings out the inner kid like grass under the toes and no better groundcover for lying back and studying the clouds. If and when you replace your lawn you’ll have to find those pleasures elsewhere. Take a run and tumble on Blithewold’s lawn instead and for those of you who find the ground too distant for a stretch, Fred and Dan’s sod bench in the Display Garden (“what is that thing?”) will be sittable any day now.

What do you use your lawn for?

3 thoughts on “The Great Lawn

  1. Ah! The lawn…. I live in a desert; the lawn sucks up more water than anything else on my property, house included. I would replace my thirsty kentucky blue with something less needy, but my trees need the water and they keep it too shady for less needy grasses. But it is so soft and green and pretty! I’m tearing out large chunks of it and putting in groundcovers to save me mowing time. Maybe if we all had to mow our lawns with a scythe we’d have smaller ones.

    Susan, I think a scythe might be easier than the dull mower I use at home! I’ll bet in the desert, a bit of green is balm for the eyes as well as the toes. -kris

  2. What an interesting post, Kris! Fascinating reading about how the family really lived in their surroundings. Love that. I love lawns, too, as politically incorrect as that might be these days. We don’t ever water or fertilize (and if we let it grow—always a possibility if mowing it gets too troublesome—it would revert to meadow immediately), but it is getting mowed once a week right now. Whoever graded our property did a spectacular job, because the slope is so regular and gentle. The hills around Hebron, New York, are echoed in the slope of the lawn. I think our house looks sweeter for the fact that it’s nestled at the top of a nice green lawn. We mostly just walk across it or sled down the slope in the winter, but in the summer I like to lay out on it in the evening and watch the sky. I guess we could certainly do with less, but for now we’ll just enjoy it.

    B and I were in Rhode Island two weekends ago; Charlestown. We mostly just chilled out, but next time we’re over there I want to visit Blithewold and see that lawn!

    Jared, Your lawn sounds like the dreamy kind of great lawn that I would keep and enjoy too. And what perfect uses for it! I’m sorry we missed seeing you when you were so close by (though by RI standards, Charlestown is a pack-a-lunch daytrip from here) but I’ll look forward to meeting you next time! -kris

  3. Great post, Kris! I love that you gave people lots to think about re: lawns… :)

    Thanks, Kim. I know you and I have similar tiny lawn, 5 minute mow goals! -kris

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