One of the things I love about visiting Europe is the opportunity to tour fancy palaces. Here in the U.S., with no actual royalty, we have to settle for the mansions of the industrialists of the early 20th century, but I have to say, their mansions are none too shabby.
Here in DC we have the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Garden. My husband and I took a guided tour recently, and it was really interesting. Before becoming a museum, the home belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post, who was the daughter (and only child) of C.W. Post. If you’ve ever eaten Grape Nuts, the name C.W. Post may sound familiar to you. He started the Post Company, which eventually became General Foods.
His first product was something that sounds just god-awful: a wheat-based “cereal beverage” that was essentially used as a coffee substitute. Caffeine and coffee in particular were somewhat demonized in the early 20th century, and C.W. Post suffered poor health all his short life (he committed suicide at the age of 27). His product was called Postum, and despite sounding absolutely disgusting, he made a small fortune selling it. (You can still buy it today, but I don’t know why you would want to.)
He left that small fortune to Marjorie, and with the help of her second husband, E.F. Hutton, she grew the company into a conglomerate. She also began collecting 18th and 19th century French decorative arts during this time.
Marjorie’s third husband was ambassador to Russia in the late 1930s (she was married and divorced a total of four times, but seems to have managed to keep her fortune through all that!). They lived in Russia for two years, where she began seriously collecting Russian Imperial art. Many of the pieces she collected were literally rescued because they were originally in churches and were in danger of being destroyed by the Bolsheviks during their purge of all things religious.
After returning to the U.S. in the years just before World War II, she continued to build her collection. In 1955 she purchased a large estate in Northwest DC, renaming it Hillwood (which confusingly was also the name of her estate on Long Island).
She completely renovated the house over two years, then moved in and hired a curator to help her manage her collection and fill in gaps. Her intention was always that it would become a museum after her death.
When visiting Hillwood, there’s a short film that shows on the half-hour. I recommend it as a starting point. It was made about 10 years ago, and the production values aren’t stunning, but it provides a lot of useful background information, and highlights certain items that you will see in the mansion.
Walking through the mansion, you really do get a sense of being in a European palace. The antique furniture, the gilded walls, the elaborate, sumptuous rugs – they all feel very European. But then you get to Marjorie’s bathroom, which pretty much screams 1950s. It’s the pinkest room I’ve ever seen!
The gardens are less impressive than the house, but still worth seeing. Their Japanese-style garden is the most interesting, in my opinion. I think part of the problem with the gardens is that it has been stiflingly hot in DC for several weeks now, even though summer hasn’t even technically begun.
Most of the flowers were wilted and a little sad-looking. They only do the garden tours during spring and fall. Even without the vibrancy of a garden in full bloom, it’s wonderful to see the grounds and how they were planned out as complementary to the mansion.
One of my favorite features of the grounds was the “cutting garden.” They grow a variety of flowers for the sole purpose of being cut and made into fresh arrangements for the mansion, the visitor’s center, and the on-site café. What a cool idea!
Speaking of the café, if you visit Hillwood, you should definitely eat lunch there. I had a salmon Niçoise salad that was phenomenal, and my husband very much enjoyed his Waldorf chicken salad sandwich. They also do an afternoon tea service, but only on select Sunday afternoons. We’re going to go back sometime for tea.
There’s currently a special exhibit called “From Ingenue to Icon,” and it features many of Marjorie’s gowns and outfits from her decades as a fixture on the New York and DC social scenes. Walking through it reminded me very much of the Princess Diana exhibit I saw a few years ago. If you’re a clothes-horse, you won’t want to miss it.
All in all, a visit to Hillwood is time and money well-spent. And you don’t even have to spend that much money – they recommend a donation of $18 for adults. We spent about four hours there, including time for lunch, and I feel like we really saw everything. If you stopped to inspect every item in the mansion, you could spend about two days there. DC obviously has no shortage of museums, but if you’re interested in seeing a really well-curated collection in a natural environment, and especially if you’re interested in Imperial Russia, I highly recommend Hillwood.