Hillwood in Washington | Washington, DC

Posted by on May 28, 2004
We were going to Washington for my sister’s birthday, and we decided to spend at least one full day down in the district. The question of exactly what our destinations would be engendered a slight difference of opinion.I wanted to go to see Hillwood Museum and Gardens.  It is the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the only child and heir to the Post Cereal empire.

Jim wanted to see the Korean War Memorial, and had never seen the Viet Nam War Memorial. He also hoped we would get to the newly opened World War II Memorial.

Since Hillwood is on the way downtown from my sister’s house, it made sense (to me, at least) to go there first. So we did.

I had heard about Hillwood for years, but had never been there before. It may have been a good idea to wait.  Now there is a new and elegant Visitors Center, which houses a resource center, an information desk, a museum shop, and features a short orientation film.

There is also a cafe in the garden, where we had a very pleasant lunch after our tour. The cafe also has an inviting outdoor space with tables and umbrellas, for good weather use.

In addition to main house, I was surprised to learn that there is an Adirondack House and a Russian Dacha on the grounds. Several different gardens and a huge greenhouse surround all of these buildings.

The greenhouse is home to a massive orchid collection, housed in five contiguous greenhouses, each providing different growing conditions. This orchid collection was an extra thrill to see, as it was unexpected. Mrs. Post considered the orchid her signature flower. Though her original collection was destroyed after being infected by a virus, these two thousand plants of approximately twelve hundred different species, hybrids, and clones have replaced it. I don’t know much about orchids, but these were breathtaking.

Among the gardens we enjoyed seeing was the French parterre, near the house, and the Vista Terrace. There is a rather strange Japanese-style garden; it was not the usual calm meditating space I associate with Japanese gardens, but rather a mish-mash of waterfalls, and too many statues.

I forgot that minor criticism when we got inside. The house is a large red brick southern colonial mansion, not especially distinguished on the outside, except for the elegant grounds. Therefore, I was unprepared for the treasures contained within. They compare favorably with collections in many major museums and are displayed in very imaginative ways.

In addition to inheriting a vast fortune, Marjorie Merriweather Post married two very wealthy men. Her second husband was Edward F. Hutton, (you know, “E.F.Hutton”), and her third was Joseph E. Davies, the second U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union. For those of you interested in films, her daughter is the actress Dina Merrill.

Learning some of the stories behind the collections made Mrs. Post seem more real to me. Among the most interesting are those from the time that she lived in Moscow, where she broadened her knowledge of Russian Imperial Art. It was lucky for the world that Mrs. Post began to buy up all sorts of treasures that would otherwise have been destroyed by the Bolsheviks. As she traveled around Russia she collected religious objects that were no longer considered of any use. When the Soviet Union sought to finance the country’s industrialization by selling off imperial treasures, Mrs. Post was able to acquire some of those. Thus visitors are able to see some fabulous portraits of tzars and tzarinas, including a large powerful portrait of Catherine the Great, wearing the very distinctive orange and black sash of the Order of St. George. This sash is seen in many places in the mansion, most notably in the exquisite display of Russian porcelain, where it is featured in one of the four dessert services that Catherine the Great commissioned in the late eighteenth century. I was mesmerized by their elegance.

Another amazing room contains hundreds of Russian icons, and then there is a room with eighty pieces of Faberge, including two imperial Easter eggs.

In addition to all the collections, one sees the elegant furniture and the way this lovely lady lived. It’s fun to see all the family photographs hanging in her dressing room and to see her beautiful daughters photos peeking out between the luscious orchids. My favorite room was the small breakfast room, full of morning light and the best of the orchids.

This 25-acre estate on the edge of Rock Creek Park is a living monument to an accomplished collector. The gardens are well worth a detailed stroll, and we saw lots of people with children. Children would enjoy the restaurant, which is just right, not too fussy, and not too plain.

I was disappointed not to see the dacha, which was built in the grounds in 1969, representing a nostalgic view of Russian culture, nor the were we able to see the Adirondack building, which was built 10 years after Mrs. Post’s death, to house her Native American collection, which had previously been in her Adirondack “camp.”

I do not want to give short shrift to the Korean War Memorial, but I’m afraid it looks that way, as I’m almost at the end of my space for this month.

It is a magnificent rendition in cast aluminum, (cast at our own Tallix Foundry in Beacon) of several larger than life American soldiers, slogging up a muddy hill in Korea. In its simplicity, it says about all we need to know about war.

It, along with the Viet Nam, and the other war memorials in the capital, are reason enough to come to Washington. We should remember our wars a little better. Then, perhaps we won’t have to repeat them so often.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *