The not-so-private reserve

Dick Brown has served as executive director of Bloedel Reserve since 1976.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Dick Brown has served as executive director of Bloedel Reserve since 1976.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Bloedel Reserve is reaching out to the community for new patronage, guidance.

On Monday, the grounds at Bloedel Reserve witnessed a white winter glaze.

The coating was too thin to bury grass blades or make branches droop, and the property’s primary residents – deer, raccoons, river otters and the various other creatures that roam the property – went about their business as usual.

But for Executive Director Dick Brown, the snow, though relatively rare, plays a role akin to icing on a cake, appointing to already sweet surroundings an additional layer of delectability.

“It’s absolutely spectacular when it snows here,” Brown said. “I’ll charge the batteries on my camera just at the thought that we might see a few inches.”

With the snow comes isolation; the 150-acre waterfront reserve on wintry days sees few tracks besides those of Brown and the animals.

Such isolation in a sense jibes with the reserve’s mission – to foster the connection between visitors and the grounds – as defined by its founders, Prentice and Virginia Bloedel.

At the same time, now entering its 20th year, the reserve is looking to build a broader bridge to the community to which it quietly belongs.

“My father wanted the reserve to be a place to experience the bond between people and nature,” said Virginia Wright, the Bloedels’ daughter and one of the reserve’s 12 board members. “The important parts of the reserve won’t change, but we look forward to engaging the larger community in building upon the original mission my father envisioned.”

That means, among other things, an expanded board that may include more island representation. Four of the seven new trustees brought aboard in the past 18 months are from Bainbridge.

The board next month will add a 13th member in former Kitsap County Commissioner Chris Endresen of Poulsbo, and at least two more members will join over the next two years.

More events and fundraising – perhaps even a free public open house – as well as potential changes to the reserve’s membership and fee structure are also being considered.

Funding needs, Brown said, are the impetus behind the coming changes, which are just beginning to take shape.

Overall, the reserve is still healthy financially – the endowment created by the Bloedels is managed “conservatively,” Brown said, and will generate about $1.3 million this year, $200,000 shy of the reserve’s $1.5 million budget. The remainder likely will be made up by fundraising efforts – $280,000 was raised in 2007 – which will intensify as the board looks to extend the reserve’s reach into the community.

Still, conscious of the changing economy and with several projects on the reserve’s wishlist, leaders want to be flexible as they look to further the mission laid out by the Bloedels when they spawned the idea of the reserve in 1970, and brought it to full fruition 18 years later.

Family home

The Bloedel family made its fortune in the timber industry and bought the land off Dolphin Drive, overlooking Port Madison Bay, in the 1950s.

Virginia had an affinity for art and antiques, which she cultivated while Prentice explored and tended to the sprawling terrain.

The French-style home on the land was built in 1929 as a summer residence by the former owners, John and Bertie Collins, who spent the rest of the year in Seattle.

After purchasing the property – at the time, just 67 acres – the Bloedels brought back the home’s original architect to help turn it into their permanent residence. In addition to a new slate roof and copper gutters, a heating system and garage were added.

The couple lived there until 1985. Virginia passed away in 1989, followed by her husband in 1996.

Wanting their land to be a community asset, the Bloedels in 1970 donated it to the University of Washington.

The Arbor Fund was created in 1974 to manage the reserve, and in 1976 Brown was named executive director. A nine-member board was formed, with equal representation from the family, the school and the community.

Guided tours were offered to the public intermittently in the years prior to the full public opening in 1988.

The visions of the various leading entities sometimes differed; the UW favored a more traditional botanical garden, but the Bloedels had a different idea.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bloedel were not really interested in using it as an educational resource,” Brown said. “They wanted visitors to have a psychological, emotional, almost spiritual experience.”

The core of that experience was to come from the land itself, about half of which is landscaped. The numerous groomed garden spaces are thus juxtaposed against large swaths left to the devices of nature.

“(The Bloedels) wanted to set aside some land where people could experience the beauty of nature in both kinds of spaces,” Brown said. “The hope was that people, by moving between those spaces and visually responding to them, would be better for it.”

Part of the experience, Brown said, hinges on quiet contemplation, which is naturally at odds with the more touristy feel of many botanical gardens.

To keep the quiet atmosphere intact, the reserve instituted a reservation policy that limits the number of visitors allowed inside each day to 200.

Guests are asked to call in advance to set up a time for their visit not to promote exclusivity, Brown said, but to protect the Bloedels’ vision for the how the land should be enjoyed. For similar reasons, interpretive placards aren’t utilized like they are at gardens elsewhere.

Despite the low-key approach, the grounds have won international acclaim and recurring press in magazines.

“There are a lot of misperceptions about why we take reservations,” Brown said. “We don’t want to keep people out, we just want to evenly disperse visitors across the day so that everyone gets to enjoy the same experience.”

Reservations can be made far in advance, or only a day out, though guests may be asked to adjust their arrival time depending on what’s happening.

The reserve hosts about 30 events each year, such as concerts, lectures and various guided tours. Guides are available upon request for groups of six or more.

July and August are the busiest months, and Mother’s Day is among the most crowded days.

Still, the reserve only reaches its maximum number of visitors a handful of days each year; some days, often the ones that see snowfall, no one enters the gate.

Brown has seen a number of changes during his tenure. The reserve has 20 paid staff members, with the average employee staying for nearly 13 years.

The board has continued to grow, as has yearly paid membership, which now stands at about 4,000 households.

Eventually, the Arbor Fund repurchased the land from the UW and still owns and manages it today.

The grounds and animal populations, too, have changed.

Maturing trees have taken greater command of the property’s various spaces. Foxes, once considered by some neighbors a threat to livestock, were snuffed out sometime in the 1970s.

A family of bald eagles has in the past few years taken up residence in a tree near the house, and Brown documents its progress each day with his camera.

Though more change is coming, the hope now, Brown said, is that the biggest changes at the reserve will continue to be those initiated by nature.

“We are taking a look at everything, right down to our hours of operation,” Brown said. “My struggle after being here for 30 years is that this place has essentially operated in a vacuum.

“Some people have said ‘why not host weddings – we could easily make money that way.’ But Mr. Bloedel didn’t want that.”

After a moment’s pause, overlooking the grey expanse of Puget Sound, Brown offered his own counterpoint.

“Then again,” he said, “who am I? Maybe some things need to change.”

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