Bellingrath Gardens, near Mobile, Alabama, wows visitors with fabulous plantings and a home full of precious antiques.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
Think of the Southern United States, and beautiful gardens often come to mind. Bellingrath Gardens and Home, 20 minutes southwest of Mobile, Alabama, has long been one of the most popular destination gardens in the United States. But more than year-round blooms have attracted people since the gardens’ opening in 1932; the home itself and the Bellingrath story are also compelling reasons to visit this beautiful estate.
When Walter Bellingrath arrived in Mobile in 1903, he started a Coca-Cola bottling works in town. Three years later he married his secretary, Bessie Morse. She had a love of beautiful things, and made their home and garden on Ann Street the showplace of Mobile.
During World War I, sugar rationing limited the availability of Coca-Cola syrup to bottlers. Complaining to his doctor about his business woes, Walter Bellingrath happened to mention his wish to buy a piece of property along the Fowl River that he had admired, and where he could do some fishing. His doctor’s prescription that day was to learn how to relax, and to buy the fishing camp immediately. Shortly thereafter, in 1917, Walter followed his physician’s advice. The land contained three rustic cabins with no running water or electricity; Walter called it Bellcamp.
Bessie immediately decided to improve the place. Her garden at their home in Mobile was filled to capacity with azaleas, but she continued to buy more flowers. The overflow found its way to Bellcamp. In 1927 the Bellingraths made an extended trip to Europe, where they were impressed with the grand gardens of England and the continent. They decided to turn Bellcamp into a country estate and hired architect George Rogers upon their return.
At first they concentrated solely on the gardens. A lack of drinking water on the property posed a major problem, and hauling water from the riverfront was tiring. Workmen dug artesian wells to remedy the situation, but everyone soon learned the water was not potable because of a high sulfur content. Rogers turned the unusable wells into fountains, pools, and waterfalls. In the spot where runoff from one well had washed out a hillside, he built a rock garden, and dammed the base to create a basin that was dubbed Mirror Lake. Rogers corresponded with nurseries and individuals across the South to purchase the largest, oldest, and most unusual azaleas and camellias.
In April 1932, the Bellingraths invited members of a local garden club to view the results of their labors. On the following day, a Sunday, they invited the public to see. The response was enthusiastic, to say the least. The traffic jam that day reportedly stretched from Mobile to Bellcamp. This encouraged the Bellingraths to open their gardens to the public on a regular basis. Admission was charged to cover crowd control and for the upkeep of the newly named “Bellingrath Gardens.”
Ever since that time, even when the Bellingraths constructed and lived in the home, visitors have paid to see the gardens. The grounds include a nature walk; an observation tower; lakes; and an expansive, grassy area filled with blooms known as the Great Lawn.
If you visit in February, you’ll see tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, pansies, camellias, and Japanese magnolias. In March, Easter lilies, azaleas, snapdragons, impatiens, yarrow, and hollyhock add to the beauty.
By April, late-blooming azaleas, dogwoods, and geraniums can be seen. Perhaps most importantly, the first roses of the season begin to blossom. Visitors can admire more than 2,000 rosebushes in more than 70 varieties. All-American rose selections are tested here before being released to markets. And, on the first Saturday in April, Bellingrath’s Great Lawn becomes a showcase for more than 200 classic cars at the annual Treadwell Camellia Classic Car Show. Awards are given in a variety of categories.
With the summer season, visitors find colorful annuals such as marigolds, and a variety of tropical plants, including hibiscus, allamanda, and coleus. In the fall, Bellingrath hosts a Chrysanthemum Extravaganza, with cascading mums everywhere. Blooms spill from every railing and balcony on the property.
Because the Bellingraths loved to celebrate the Christmas season, a holiday tradition continues to this day on the property. From the day after Thanksgiving throughout December, the grounds sparkle during a special display known as Magic Christmas in Lights. Thousands of lights are displayed in the gardens, while indoors, a Christmas tree made of poinsettias towers above visitors in the Magnolia Café. Festive music performances and holiday food are offered during the event.
The gardens also include the Exotica Conservatory. The conservatory houses tropical plants such as orchids, fuchsia, and bird-of-paradise. From the rose garden, trails lead along flower-bordered trails to the garden’s Oriental-American section, then on to Mirror Lake.
Another area at Bellingrath is the Dwight Harrigan Bayou Preserve. A stroll on the Bayou’s Exxon Ecological Boardwalk provides an opportunity to see wildlife ranging from turtles to an occasional alligator. The quarter-mile boardwalk winds around native plants and cypress trees. This area contains almost all major ecosystem habitats native to south Alabama, from a wildflower bog to a woodland meadow, and a bayou with freshwater and saltwater fish.
The Bellingrath home, also designed by architect George Rogers, was completed in 1935. On guided tours, visitors today learn about the 15-room home and can admire all of the original furnishings and furniture. The home looks just as it did in 1955, when Walter Bellingrath died. (Bessie died in 1943.)
The mansion’s exterior is a combination of French, English, and Mediterranean styles, while the interior blends primarily English Renaissance and American Colonial. Recycling of building supplies was a mainstay of this home. The exterior brick came from demolished structures in Mobile that were built before the Civil War. The home’s ironwork and riverside columns were obtained from Mobile’s Southern Hotel. The flagstone was material used in Mobile’s sidewalks. Mrs. Bellingrath struck a deal with the city of Mobile: in exchange for every block of flagstone her workers carried away, the Bellingraths paid to have new concrete poured in its place.
Creating the interior demanded much time and attention. Bessie furnished the home with antique furniture, rare porcelains, fine china, silver, and crystal. She frequented shops in New Orleans, Mobile, New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The couple’s trip to Europe in 1927 was a source of many pieces.
Bessie also purchased items from individuals who did not share her taste. She was a kind-hearted woman, renowned for helping people during the Depression. Many folks facing hard times came to her door with their treasures. She bought whatever they had to sell, and later found a place for each item or located someone who would use it.
Bessie did the same with garden plants. While on trips to Mobile, she’d stop at a disheveled house, send her driver to the door, and offer to pay the owner as much as $300 for a particular shrub she had spotted in the yard. When encountering other needy people who had no garden, she would call on the person, spot a knickknack, and offer a huge sum of money, saying she had been searching for that very thing.
The furniture and items Bessie kept in her home, which are still in place today, consist of antiques dating from the early to mid-1800s. They’re complemented by beautiful porcelain by Meissen, Dresden, Derby, Copeland, Sevres, Old Paris, and Capo di Monte. In the Bottle Room, visitors find stemware, Victorian ice cream sets, and American and Irish cut-glass serving pieces. A large mahogany chest contains hundreds of pieces of Whiting flatware in the King Edward pattern of 1901. The room also contains Walter’s collection of character and utilitarian bottles, including many Coca-Cola bottles.
The Butler’s Pantry contains a vast amount of china the Bellingraths used for their constant entertaining. Looking around the room, visitors may spot an early 19th-century dessert service by England’s Worcester, or ornate dinner sets by Black Knight of Bavaria. Tour guides will point out the seven tea and coffee services and nine dinner services.
The pantry also contains a collection of the Coca-Cola trophies Mr. Bellingrath won for the amount of cola syrup used by the Mobile plant in a single year. In 1903, when he began bottling the beverage, his plant utilized 365 gallons; by 1948, the number was half a million gallons.
Madame Pontalba, creator of New Orleans’ famed Jackson Square, was the previous owner of the 20-piece furniture set in the parlor. Sir Thomas Lipton, of tea and sailing fame, once owned the banquet table and Chippendale chairs that adorn the dining room.
Although the kitchen was last updated in 1942, it contains some modern appliances. These include electric and gas ranges, two top-loading dishwashers, a double-door refrigerator, and a freezer. The home had other conveniences, too: an intercom system, a telephone, and a generator for electricity. (Alabama Power did not service this part of Mobile County until 1942.)
Upstairs, visitors will find more of Bessie Bellingrath’s porcelain collection. In one of the guest rooms, look for exquisite Mardi Gras costumes. Few people realize that Mobile had a Mardi Gras celebration long before New Orleans did.
Other items on display in the Bellingraths’ more private rooms include a collection of doll heads from the 19th and 20th centuries, a Tiffany lamp, and an inlaid chess table given by Queen Victoria to an American chess champion in 1858.
Although the Bellingraths never had any children, they constantly entertained. In 1939 they added a guesthouse, a six-car garage, and a small chapel. In 1967 the garage was refitted to house the Delchamps Gallery of Boehm Porcelain, touted as the largest display of Boehm porcelain in the world.
The chapel was used by the Bellingraths for religious services and as a viewing room for showing films of their garden. It’s now a wedding site. The stained-glass windows reveal flower designs, such as poinsettias and roses.
The third and final aspect of a visit to the Bellingrath Gardens and Home can be a scenic river cruise aboard the Southern Belle. The boat departs from docks located near the mansion. The 45-minute sight-seeing trip takes passengers down the Fowl River, which is home to a variety of bird life, including ospreys, pelicans, blue herons, and egrets. The boat passes homes and cottages as it travels through this estuary. Sight-seeing cruises are offered from mid-February through November, and evening dinner cruises are available on many weekends throughout the year.
After walking amid 65 acres of exquisite plantings and touring this beautiful home, you’ll understand why Bellingrath Gardens and Home was chosen as the first Alabama property to appear on the A&E television network’s “American Castles” series. Spending an afternoon or morning at Bellingrath makes any visit to the Mobile area worthwhile.
Bellingrath Gardens and Home is approximately 15 miles south of downtown Mobile. From Mobile, take Interstate 10 west to exit 15-A and follow the signs. Ample free motorhome parking is available.
Admission prices vary, according to package. Gardens admission is $8.50 for adults and $5 for children ages 5 to 11, and children age 4 and under are admitted free; gardens and home admission is $15.75 for adults and $10 for children; gardens and home admission plus a 45-minute cruise aboard the Southern Belle is $24 for adults and $15 for children. Group rates are also available.
For more information, contact:
Bellingrath Gardens and Home
12401 Bellingrath Road
Theodore, AL 36582
Mobile Area Campgrounds
The following is a sampling of area campgrounds and may not be a complete list. Please consult your favorite campground directory or Family Motor Coaching’s “Business Service Directory” for additional listings.
Mobile’s I-10 Kampground
6430 Theodore-Dawes Road
Theodore, AL 36582
Bellingrath RV Park
7690 Bellingrath Road
Theodore, AL 36582
Dauphin Island Campground
109 Bienville Blvd.
Dauphin Island, AL 36528
(334) 861-2742 or 861-3607
Ace’s RV Park
3815 Moffett Road
Mobile, AL 36618
Brown’s RV Park
1619 Jasper Road
Mobile, AL 36618