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Bloedel’s Retreat

September 7th, 2010

This past weekend, Sara and I rode our bikes onto the ferry to Bainbridge Island and headed out to spend the afternoon exploring the peaceful acreage of Bloedel Reserve.

In the 80′s, Prentice and Virginia Bloedel opened their former home to the public as a collection of gardens. Like all gardens, it is a curated, supernatural experience of nature. As if listening to a ‘greatest hits’ record of natural beauty, walking the grounds was an inspired dialogue  for someone left, too often, without the time or patience to seek out these sublime combinations in the wilderness. Unlike most other gardens, however, Bloedel Reserve is big enough to come across like the real thing. It is at once both wild and tamed — anarchic and groomed. It manages to be represent both inspiration and artwork all rolled into one.

One has the suspicion that the unique flavor of Bloedel Reserve has its roots in the union of personalities that birthed it. Prentice and Virginia were possessed of two very different sensibilities when it came to the things they fancied. Prentice was part of the Bloedel family — owners of a far reaching timber empire. He was Yale educated and, as a young man, desired to teach, but he was lured back into the family business. The way that he took to the industry, however, suggests that it may have the been the job he was born to do. He pioneered the economical practice of using sawdust and other mill “wastes” as fuel as well as the practice of reforestation of lands that were logged by planting saplings as the land was cleared. Overall, one gets the impression that he loved nature, the woods, and promoted man’s responsible and economical use of natural resources. He was attracted to the grounds that became the reserve because of its large acreage and rugged beauty.

Virginia Bloedel, however, fell in love with the French-style main house that occupied the plot (the Bloedels purchased the land and main house in the early 1950′s). She was lover of beauty and order. She filled the house with art and Louis XVI style furniture. She passed her love of art on to her daughter (also named Virginia), who ended up collecting (with her husband Bagley Wright) the bulk of what is now the Modern collection of the Seattle Art Museum. All the parts of the estate that seem to have an ordered class and an European beauty I attribute to Ma Bloedel.

There is a reflecting pool (pictured top) in the center of the grounds. It was the Bloedel’s favorite place to hang out in the garden. A single bench sits at one end of the pool, and a vase of bright flowers sits at the other. It’s a surprising venue for quiet contemplation.

The large shallow pool was built with the guidance of landscape designer Thomas Church and was later reworked by Richard Haag, who added a tall rectangular hedge around the whole thing. In a way, this place encapsulates the spirit of the entire Reserve — the surprising presence of man’s mind and hand in the middle of wild forest.

Design, Life, Photography

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