Bellingrath Gardens and Home is a 65-acre park containing public gardens and a house museum near Theodore, Mobile County, 20 miles south of Mobile. Often referred to as the "the charm spot of the Deep South," the estate is named for former owners Walter Duncan and Bessie Mae Morse Bellingrath.
Walter Bellingrath was a prosperous local Coca-Cola bottler in the early decades of the twentieth century. Raised in Castleberry, Conecuh County, Bellingrath worked for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in Montgomery until 1903, when he bought a Coca-Cola bottling franchise with his brother, William. As the business grew, they decided to split their coverage areas; Walter chose Mobile, which proved to be a financial profitable move. The ever-popular beverage sold well in southwest Alabama, and Bellingrath soon expanded his business holdings beyond bottling into warehouses, a tile firm, and steamship companies.
The current facility began to take shape when Bessie began planting azaleas and camellias at a rustic fishing camp on the Fowl River that Walter had purchased in 1917 when his doctor advised him to relax more. Walter and Bessie were later inspired by the gardens that they visited throughout their travels in the United States and by those that they toured at English estates and on the European continent during a 1927 vacation abroad. After their return, Bessie bought even more flowering shrubs from local businesses, often overpaying in an effort to help struggling growers and sellers during the Great Depression. The couple then hired prominent Mobile architect George B. Rogers to design the grounds, which the couple opened to the public in 1932 to great acclaim. In 1934, they opened the gardens year-round, with an entrance fee of 50 cents.
The Bellingrath home at the gardens, a 15-room, 10,000-square-foot English Renaissance mansion, was constructed in 1935 and also designed by Rogers. The Bellingraths made the site their permanent residence in 1935. The mansion was appointed with artwork, rare antique furniture, and fine silver and gold serving sets, which still grace the home. An extensive collection of porcelain bird sculptures by artist Edward Boehm is displayed in the home's former guest house and garage building.
Bessie died in 1943, and in 1950 Walter formed the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation, a nonprofit trust for the continued operation and maintenance of the house and grounds. The foundation also supports Central Presbyterian Church and St. Francis Methodist Church in Mobile and funds scholarships at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, and Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Walter Bellingrath died in 1955 and left the bulk of his estate to the foundation. The house was opened to the public viewing under the care of foundation trustees in 1956. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Astute visitors may note that the circular rose garden near the entrance resembles the Rotary Club gearwheel logo: Bellingrath was a founding member of the Mobile Rotary Club. The rose garden won the All-America Rose Selections' "Top Public Rose Garden in the United States" in 1987 and 2004. Beyond the rose garden sits the Exotica Conservatory, which houses a wide range of tropical flowers. Near the Bellingrath Home courtyard lies the Camellia Parterre, the wide-open spaces of the Great Lawn, a pool and canal with fountains adorned with statues of a mermaid and "Rebecca at the Well," a grotto overlooking the river, and a monolith displaying a history of the gardens. A rustic bridge crosses Mirror Lake to take visitors to the Camellia Arboretum and summer house and to an observation deck overlooking the bayou on the northern edge of the grounds. Red-lacquered bridges span pools dotted with paving stones in the Oriental-American Garden, the entrance resembling a Shinto shrine with a circular red sign between two dragons reading "drink Coca-Cola" in Japanese.
Visitors to Bellingrath Gardens and Home may take self-guided tours of the gardens and sightseeing and dinner cruises on the
Fowl River aboard the 150-passenger riverboat Southern Belle, as well as a guided tour of the mansion, still featuring its original furnishings. In December, the park hosts a holiday
light show, Magic Christmas in Lights, displaying themed vignettes created with more than 3 million light bulbs, as well as
choral performances. Bellingrath Gardens and Home employs approximately 70 staff members and in 2008 saw more than 136,000
Holder, Fred W. Bellingrath Gardens and Home: A Pictorial Story in Color of the "Charm Spot of the Deep South." Mobile, Ala.: Bellingrath-Morse Foundation, 1974.
Martin, Laura C. Laura C. Martin's Southern Gardens: A Gracious History and a Traveler's Guide. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.
Wedda, John. Gardens of the American South. Richmond, Va.: Westover Publishing, 1971.
Published May 6, 2009
Last updated March 1, 2013