If you drive all the way down Blithewood Avenue, almost to the river, you’ll come across a beautiful, rambling mansion aptly called Blithewood. A North Carolina gentleman, named Robert Donaldson, Esq., purchased the land in the 1830s, and hired Hudson Valley boys, architect Alexander Jackson Davis, and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing to fix up the home and grounds. There’s not much left of their work except the octagonal gatehouse and a driveway lined with white pine trees.
The current mansion wasn’t built until a future owner, Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie, hired Francis Hoppin, formerly of the famed architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to design a manor house and complementary garden. Out went the cottage and naturalistic landscape. In their place, there’s a grand Beaux-Arts mansion and a garden that is very much in the Italianate style. It is also sunken, which makes for a wonderful jolting surprise, when you walk toward the stairs. In fact, you can’t really see the garden at all, from the parking lot.
The plantings are a dense mix of drought tolerant lavenders, sages, succulents and roses. The color palette is subdued, in shades of blues, grays, pinks and white, nicely paired with brick walls, stone edging and structures and gravel pathways. There is a definite Mediterranean feel, with plenty of benches to sit on and enjoy the view, set up an easel or have a brown bag lunch.
Between Donaldson and Captain Zabriskie, John Bard owned the property. He donated a portion of the estate to the future St. Stephen’s College, which became Bard College in 1934. Captain Zabriskie’s son donated the remainder of the estate to Bard College in 1951. In 1987, Blithewood was transferred to The Levy Economics Institute, by Bard College. It serves as their research and conference facility.