In the summer of 1894 Augustus Van Wickle, a graduate of Brown University, and his daughter Marjorie came to Rhode Island to scout out locations where Augustus might build a summer home for his family. Although they stayed in Narragansett and visited Newport, it was a special invitation from an old family friend from Philadelphia, Dr. Herbert Howe, to visit Bristol that piqued their interest in the area and changed the course of their lives.
Dr. Howe owned an estate on Ferry Hill (now the site of Roger Williams University), as well as a magnificent 85-foot Herreshoff steam yacht named Polyanthus. He sailed Polyanthus down to Narragansett, picked up Augustus and Marjorie, and took them for a sail on the Bay, ending up at his home in Bristol. Augustus was so impressed with the performance and comfort of the well-appointed boat that he asked to visit the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and meet John Herreshoff, the designer.
At the boat-building workshop, John Herreshoff showed Augustus the new 78-foot steam yacht Eugenia that he had built for his wife. Augustus was so captivated with the yacht that he persuaded Mr. Herreshoff to sell it to him. Marjorie remembered, many years later: “My father fell in love with the yacht and bought it right then and there. He renamed her Marjorie. We could not sail away in her, as the embroidered names on the linen had to be changed!”
Later that same day, Dr. Howe took Augustus to see a 70-acre estate on Narragansett Bay that had once belonged to John Rogers Gardner. Marjorie wrote: “My father loved the place. But he restrained himself from buying it to at least consult with his wife! A week or two later, we went to Narragansett again. This time my mother was with us…my father brought mother to see the Gardners’ place. She fell in love with it also, and so the family became the owners of Blithewold.”
The “Gardners’ place” was not large enough, however, for the Van Wickles—and it was built too close to Ferry Road. So they had it moved to the southern part of the property to use as a guest house, and built a much larger residence in its place—a beautiful Queen Anne-style shingled mansion designed by Francis Hoppin of Newport. They engaged the services of John DeWolf, Bristol Landscape Architect, to help Bessie design the gardens.
In the meantime, Augustus commissioned the building of a large dock complex on the Bay, next to a sandy beach for the children. From the beginning, summer life at the estate focused on water sports, from swimming and diving to sailing, kayaking, and rowing. The boathouse at the water’s edge was filled with boats of all sizes, built for sailors of all ages. The Marjorie, moored at the new dock, was a beautiful, stately, and luxuriously outfitted boat that accommodated family and friends on day sails to and from Newport, and on longer cruises to Massachusetts and Maine.But Augustus had more challenging sailing in mind, so he also bought two racing boats from the Herreshoffs—Esperanza and Wild Swan. He became very active in the Bristol Yacht Club, racing his boats at every opportunity, and was soon elected Commodore of the club.
After Augustus’s untimely death only two years later, Bessie married William McKee. Bessie sold the Marjorie and William McKee chartered the Chanticleer—a 118-foot schooner yacht that the whole family enjoyed for many years.