Monday, September 28, 2009

Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens - Washington, DC

The entrance to Hillwood, a 40 room neo-Georgian mansion
built in 1926

One of the things I love about travelling to the eastern part of the USA is visiting some of the "stately" homes of the very rich which have been opened for public view for one reason or another.

The Hudson Valley was the location of the country homes of many wealthy New York industrialists such as the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, as well as old moneyed families such as the Roosevelts. So over the years I have found great interest and pleasure in touring these and seeing how the "other half" lived in former years.

Washington DC is home to such an estate, but from the moment in 1955 when Marjorie Merriweather Post bought the 25 acre estate, which she renamed Hillwood, she always intended it to be a museum as well as her home. At 27 she inherited the Postum Cereal Company, which later became the General Foods Corporation, making her one of the wealthiest women in America. As she took her place in the cosmopolitan circles in Manhattan her passion for the arts began and she began to seriously collect French decorative arts in 1919.

A view from the French Parterre garden towards the house.
Marjorie's bedroom overlooked this scene

But her other lifelong passion, Russian imperial art, began when she was the wife of the United States Ambassador in Moscow, Joseph E Davies, in 1937-38. She assembled the beginnings of her collection at that time, perhaps one tenth of it, finally building perhaps the finest Russian collection of icons, gold and silver pieces, porcelain and Faberge eggs outside of the country itself.

Front entrance hall of the house

On her death in 1973 this house became the museum she had always planned so that others could share her treasures. Touring the house and gardens is very well organized, starting with an introductory film and you can either join a guided tour or at your leisure roam both, with the aid of an audio device. We chose the guided tour of the house which lasted about an hour and a half. No cameras allowed inside unfortunately so I will have to point you to their site if you would like to see some of the wonderful things the museum houses.

Many of her Russian things are not only objects of beauty but have wonderful historical significance. The Icon Room houses objects of silver and gold, often liturgical pieces, and over 80 pieces made by Fabergé, including two of the famous imperial Easter eggs. The crown worn by Empress Alexandra at her wedding to Nicholas II is also part of this collection but probably the most stunning and valuable piece is the Buch Chalice which was commissioned by Catherine the Great for her local parish church and for which she provided all the gold and jewels used in its making.

Her collection of porcelain, both Russian and French, is outstanding and many of her guests were treated to dinner on these various services. She had a special love for 18th century blue Sèvres porcelain which she collected for many years.

Mrs Post's bedroom suite formed part of the tour and there she had breakfast and dealt with her correspondence and consulted with staff members. Many of her clothes along with some of her jewellery were on display and it brought home to me that this woman actually lived among these treasures that she had lovingly collected over many years.

Later we wandered the beautiful gardens which are divided into various areas.

The rose garden with Mrs Post's monument in the centre

Still blooming strongly even in September

Probably one of the most popular gardens there is the Japanese style garden constructed in the late 1950s. As they say, it is a blending of the Japanese traditions and American taste.

It was constructed on the side of a hill with many different levels and separate vistas.

There seem to be a surfeit of statuary and sculptures in amongst the plants and rock as apparently Mrs Post continued to add them even after the garden was officially finished.

This copy of a Russian dacha, or one room summer house, was built in 1969 and is charmingly set in an azalea garden which must be quite the sight in Spring.

Oh did I tell you that we ate lunch there too? At a charming café in the gardens.

Salmon with goat cheese and mini asparagus. Delicious.

And of course I bought a book about the place as well. If you ever go to Washington DC and can tear yourself away from the Smithsonian, I can most highly recommend that you visit Hillwood.


CherryPie said...

That looks like a wonderfully interesting mansion and garden to visit.

jams o donnell said...

I agree with Cherie. Perhaps if I make it to that part of the world I will visit!

jmb said...

Well Cherie who visits real stately homes regularly I think you would enjoy this place.

Jams if you ever get to Washington DC you will probably not make it out of the Smithsonian. It took two visits to get me to somewhere else. But this is a great place to visit.

Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Carver said...

What a wonderful tour JMB. The photographs and narrative are so interesting. Bill and I are going to Williamsburg, VA in a few weeks to visit Colonial Williamsburg for a vacation. Our daughter who recently finished law school and has moved back to Baltimore, where she went to undergrad school, is going to meet us there for a few days.

If we have time I'd be tempted to go to the Hillwood Estate after reading this post, but doubtful since we're only in VA for 4 days, and have a lot we want to see around Williamsburg. Your post has really tempted me to consider whether we can fit it in since it's only 2 1/2 hours drive from where we are staying.

sally in norfolk said...

Was going to say Cherrypie would love this place..but see she got here before me :-)

Ellee Seymour said...

I love the gardens, they are utterly gorgeous. How the other half lived!

CherryPie said...

I see both you and Sally know me so well ;-)

Liz said...

I like the more personal type of museums, especially when you get to see desks and papers and clothes. It looks like a fabulous house. Just imagine living in that ...

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Wow, that's some entrance hall!