Benvenuto: A Beautiful Welcome From the Heart

After an unexpected opportunity to accompany my husband on a business trip, I have a new heroine.  Her name is Jennie Butchart.  Though she began her work more than a hundred years ago, her remarkable vision and diligent service transformed her retirement homesite on Vancouver Island into a place of beauty and peace that enchants millions of visitors every year.  We call the gardens Butchart, after her, but she called her home Benvenuto, which is Italian for Welcome.  Her home and the gardens she created are a tangible and lasting extension of what was in her heart; they have inspired me with greater desire to create a feeling of welcome in my own home.  More on this in the moment …


Monuments to misery. Mrs. Butchart’s neighbors, however, made different choices than she did, a reflection of their differing values.   About the same time the Butcharts retired to the Victoria area, the Dunsmuir family also built two castles there for their retirement:  living in a castle was the condition one of the Dunsmuir wives had set for moving to that heavenly spot in the first place!  The senior Mr. Dunsmuir had made a fortune when he found a rich deposit of coal.


He turned his business ventures over to his sons and built a castle near town for his wife, Joan; the building was completed shortly after he died. Upon his death, the vicious lawsuits which erupted among members of his family made national headlines.  When Joan died, her daughters sold the estate and the property was subdivided.   The “lucky” pair who purchased the castle portion soon lost it, due to nonpayment of debts.


Magnifying the Mistake. Mr. Dunsmuir’s son purchased more than two hundred acres as a site for his castle.  He reportedly instructed the builder to spare no expense: “Just build me what I want.”  Constructing the castle took nearly two hundred workmen and cost a million dollars — and it was completed in a mere eighteen months.  He and his wife and ten children moved in, hiring landscapers to construct additional extensive buildings and gardens for their enjoyment.


Mrs. Laura Dunsmuir loved entertaining and had the dining room fitted with a bell she could ring with her foot to signal to the servants when each course should be served.  Mr. Dunsmuir had fish ladders built, so he could stock his lake with fish.  He had his own end of the castle, including a private exit — which he used to escape from their endless company to his daily hunting, yachting, and fishing expeditions.  The family was characterized by our tour guide as “dysfunctional,” a gentle term to cover the forms of selfishness and debauchery that plagued them and their children.


The end of the Party. Within thirty years, Mr. and Mrs. Dunsmuir were dead and their six remaining daughters sold the entire property to the Canadian government for a paltry $75,000.  They had already sold the furnishings at auction for pennies on the dollar.  The Dunsmuir’s is a sad story:  the largest fortune in the province went up in smoke within three generations, and a family was destroyed with it.


Building a Dream Home? By contrast, Jennie Butchart’s husband had made a fortune in the Portland cement business in the interior of Canada; they then purchased more than a hundred picturesque acres on the coast of Vancouver Island with plans to retire where the climate would be perfect.  As they began to build, however, they found that their property contained high-grade limestone, the main ingredient in Portland cement.  Mr. Butchart came out of retirement and made another fortune, building a factory community at the beach on one end of the property for the workmen who excavated and transported the limestone.


Coming to a solution by putting problems — and bringing people — together. In a relatively short time the limestone was gone, but a dead quarry was left not far from the house.  It was a monstrous pit, and there was also the problem of the now-unemployed workers from the quarry.  Mrs. Butchart put the problems together, sending the men out with their teams and instructing them to scour the countryside in search of topsoil and plants.


She assembled designers and craftsmen to create pools of pits and make gardens of garbage, connecting them (naturally) with concrete walkways.  She dug in the dirt herself, for the undertaking was her personal hobby.  She hung over ledges to plant ivy and other exotic plants in crevices.  She scoured the earth in search of the interesting and the beautiful and she brought it to her place in the Americas.


Extending the scope and the welcome. With the support of her husband and with the help of many talented people, Jennie Butchart created other unique gardens in distinct styles across her property.  She hosted friends from around the world, then began opening the gardens to the public at certain times of the year, so others could enjoy what had been created.  Mrs. Butchart made tea available to these guests, even anonymously serving them herself.


Building a lasting family heritage. Over the generations, Jennie Butchart’s descendants have added fountains and made other improvements.  The property, which has been declared a Canadian National Historic Site, still belongs to the Butchart family.  It is the number one attraction in a city of attractions, never having taken support money from the Canadian government.  On the wall of the former house (now an elegant restaurant) hangs a tribute from Mrs. Butchart’s grandson.  It notes that the gardens are like a beautiful diamond which benefits from a fine setting.  “My grandmother made this diamond, and my grandfather provided the setting.”  Clearly, what was created has continued to be a gift of reciprocating love.


A living tribute. I have long been conscious that a home is an extension of the heart that creates it.   But looking at the long-term product of a beautiful heart is not always as clear as these women have made it.  Because what they created exists tangibly as well as in the private lives of their descendants, after more than a hundred years we can see their fruits and know what they were at heart.  Along with millions of others, I have been inspired to live and love better, that I may also create a heavenly place of Home.




©2011 Daunell Clarke/



Photos by the author.


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