By the turn of the twentieth century, Bristol's grandest houses were no longer built for local merchants and industrialists, but as summer residences for out-of-town vacationers. Of these the grandest was Blithewold, for Augustus Van Wickle (1856–1898), a Pennsylvania coalmining magnate who had attended Brown University. Having purchased a Herreshoff yacht, he decided to build a summer house in Bristol, which was begun in 1895 as a large shingled composition.
Following Van Wickle's death in a skeetshooting accident, the house passed to his widow, Bessie. The original shingled house burned in 1906 and was replaced the following year by the present structure, designed by the Boston architectural firm of Kilham and Hopkins. Blithewold is a sprawling Old English house whose central block is of stone and stucco. An elongated narrow composition, sited parallel to the Narragansett Bay coastline, it shows the tasteful picturesque of the prevailing academic taste. The eclectic sequence of rooms, varying from colonial to Tudor, is exceptionally well preserved. Of particular note is the richly paneled dining room. In character, Blithewold had little to do with historic Bristol and suggested that its model was the lavish Newport mansion type.
Bessie's daughter Marjorie McKee (1883–1976), who married George Lyon (1898–1977), acquired the house. Like her mother, Bessie lavished great attention on the landscaping of the 33-acre grounds, supervising the formal plantings near the house as well as the picturesque groupings of specimen trees and shrubs; these are at least as remarkable as the house itself. Following Bessie's death, the house and grounds were opened to the public.