In The Beginning
Walter Bellingrath bought his fishing camp along Fowl River in 1917 at the advice of his physician, Dr. Paul McGehee. Dr. McGehee determined that Mr. Bellingrath was work-a-holic and needed to “learn how to play.” At that time the camp included two dilapidated shacks, no electricity or running water and Mr. Bellingrath loved it. He and his father-in-law fixed up the cabins and added screened porches while using the property for hunting and fishing. In the 1920s one of the shacks was removed to build a lodge with beamed ceilings, a large fireplace and screened porches overlooking Fowl River.
Bessie Bellingrath, Mr. Bellingrath’s wife and former stenographer, was well known for her love of gardens and the couple’s South Ann Street home was admired for its extensive gardens. In fact, the Bellingraths often allowed garden admirers access to their driveway, which was known for numerous azalea and camellia blooms. Mrs. Bellingrath soon realized available property for additional azaleas, camellias and other plants was diminishing on South Ann Street. Open acres of land on her husband’s fishing camp allowed room for a variety of plants and Mrs. Bellingrath soon gave the property a feminine touch.
Frequent travelers, the Bellingraths ventured on a European excursion in the summer of 1927. During their visit, they gained a deep appreciation for the beautiful English estates and European gardens. Upon their return, they hired prominent Mobile architect, George B. Rogers to design a garden for the couple. Since there were no landscape architects in that era, the city’s finest architect was chosen for the job.
Rogers took meandering paths and added a back drop of tall camellias and azaleas, which he and Mrs. Bellingrath collected from across the Deep South. Water features of fountains and waterfalls were installed and framed with English flagstone walkways. The stone had been obtained from old city sidewalks in Mobile where they had been in place since arriving as ballast in English sailing vessels collecting loads of cotton for the mills at Manchester.
The Gardens Open to the Public
During the spring of 1932, a national garden club meeting was being held in Mobile. On Sunday, April 7, 1932, the Bellingraths issued a general invitation to the public to view the Gardens between one and five that afternoon. Over 5,000 Mobilians jammed the roads to see what the Bellingraths called “Belle Camp,” currently in the height of its azalea season. Mobile’s police force was needed to direct traffic. The couple was stunned.
Overwhelmed by the response, the Bellingraths soon opened the Gardens to the public for spring appreciation and named the former fishing camp Bellingrath Gardens. Two years later in 1934, the couple decided to open the Gardens year-round. Mr. Bellingrath often said the Gardens were like a beautiful woman with a different dress for each week of the year.
The Gardens Today
Throughout the year, Bellingrath Gardens and Home features a wide variety of flowering plants throughout the 65 acre estate. From camellias in winter, azaleas in spring, roses in summer, chrysanthemums in autumn and poinsettias during the holidays, Bellingrath Gardens and Home is always beautiful, but never the same.