VISITATION BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
The Miramar Arboretum encompasses the full 7.8 acres of the historic Miramar estate. The neoclassical french chateau designed by American architect Horace Trumbauer borders Bellevue Avenue on Aquidneck Island and overlooks the Rhode Island Sound.
Commissioned as a summer home for George D. Widener of Philadelphia and his family, the house was completed in 1915 by the widowed Eleanor Elkins Widener who was rescued in a lifeboat from the Titanic; her husband George and son Harry did not survive.
Miramar’s grounds are the work of the French landscaper architect Jacques Gréber, who laid out the grand parterre facing Bellevue Avenue. Gréber is best known in this country for designing Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the formal French gardens at Edward T. Stotesbury’s Whitemarsh Hall outside of Philadelphia.
In 2006 Miramar was purchased by present owner, David Barker Ford, a ninth-generation Rhode Islander whose ancestor James Barker was a signer of the original charter granted to the colony ofRhode Island. Mr. Ford has undertaken a detailed study and conservation of the estate with an international team of preservation consultants and advisors. Exterior stone cleaning, repointing, roof, and balustrade work, interior paint analysis, and tree care has been implemented, bringing the house and grounds on a course back to the original vision of Mrs. Widener and her design team. Mr. Ford is also labeling notable trees of the property with identification tags, allowing visitors to distinguish and learn about the different tree species on the grounds.
Woody plants of distinction on this property include an immense Tilia tomentosa, Silver Linden, reaching 70 feet and an estimated diameter of 192 inches. A graceful weeping hornbeam in pristine condition, Carpinus betulus ‘Pendula,’ is an uncommon find in Rhode Island. Original plantings of Chamaecyparis pisfera filifera, Sawara Cypress, once intended as knee-high border shrubs, are now an impressive hedge. Miramar’s continuing transformation includes a diverse array of young trees planted in the last five years through The Newport Arboretum Specimen Tree Program, complementing the original 1915 plantings.
Eleanor Elkins Widener and her maid stepped into one of the lifeboats of the Titanic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912 after the ship struck an iceberg. Her husband, George, and her son, Harry, did not survive. The Wideners were returning from a visit to Paris where, among other things, they were purchasing their daughter’s wedding trousseau and hiring a French chef for the Ritz Carlton hotel in Philadelphia. Their son Harry, a noted book collector since his student days at Harvard, had joined his parents on their trip. The Wideners were also looking for furniture and decorative objects for the Newport house being designed for them by the Philadelphia architect, Horace Trumbauer.
George D. Widener’s father, Peter Arrell Brown Widener, was a third generation American whose German ancestors settled in Philadelphia in the mid-18th century. P.A.B. Widener made the family fortune supplying mutton to the Union troops during the Civil War and then investing in streetcars during the 1880s and 1890s. Upon his death on November 6, 1915, the value of his estate was estimated at $100 million, which would be over $25 billion today. The Wideners became noted for their palatial estates, such as their main residence, Lynnewood Hall (1900) outside of Philadelphia and their magnificent art collections.
Upon her safe return to America, the widowed Mrs. Widener continued with plans for her Newport house, named Miramar (Spanish for “sea-view’). She also commissioned Trumbauer to design a library at Harvard University in her son’s memory, which is today known as the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library.
Trumbauer’s design for Miramar was a neo-classical French petit palais, inspire by 18th century French architecture, to house Mrs. Widener’s French furniture, boiserie, tapestries and porcelains. Trumbauer was likely assisted on the project by his gifted designer, Julien Abele, one of America’s first African American architects. Construction on Miramar began in 1913 and the house opened in the summer of 1915.
On the evening of August 20, 1915, carriages and cars drove through this magnificent landscape to the first of many balls at Miramar. Soon after, Mrs. Widener wed Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice, a physician and well-known river explorer. His new bride would accompany him on many of his future expeditions to South America.
George D. Widener, Jr., and Eleanor Widener Dixon, Mrs. Rice’s two surviving children, inherited Miramar and donated it to the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. The Diocese sold the property in 1964 and it operated as the Miramar School for Girls until 1970. In 2006, Miramar was purchased by David Barker Ford.