This weekend Marc and I wanted to be turistas, but didn’t want to go far from home. The Hillwood Estate, right in the District was the perfect option. My friend Laura works there and graciously offered to take us around the home and vast gardens. It was absolutely lovely.
Founded by American collector and heiress to the Post cereal empire Marjorie Merriweather Post, Hillwood is one of the finest art collector’s museums in the United States as all the pieces come from Marjorie’s own private collection. I mean the lady had EVERYTHING, including a Dacha (I would too if I’d been the sole heir to Post Cereal).
She purchased the estate in 1955 with the intention of making it a museum upon her death. She spent the fall and spring at Hillwood, summered in the Adirondacks and spent her winters at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, now owned by Donald Trump. I don’t blame her for staying away from DC in the summers!
The museum (i.e. her house) features the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia and a world-renowned collection of eighteenth-century French decorative art and furnishings. The collection includes Fabergé eggs, Russian porcelain, Russian Orthodox icons, Beauvais tapestries, and Sèvres porcelain. Encircled by woodlands bordering Rock Creek Park, the twenty-five acre estate provides visitors a tranquil oasis of luscious formal gardens ranging from a French Parterre to a Japanese Style Garden complete with a pond and waterfall. Her ashes even rest in the rose garden on the estate!
When we arrived at Hillwood we watched a short film about Marjorie’s life and collections. She started collecting decorative art at a young age and became fascinated with Russian art when she traveled to Russia with her 3rd husband (GF didn’t mess when it came to men) who was the ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1938. At that time the Soviet Government was selling the Tsar and Tsarina’s centuries old possessions like candy and Marjorie scored some awesome stuff. Later she hired her own curator to fill gaps in her collection. The most impressive piece for me was a Fabergé Egg given by Nicolas II to his mother. I’m not sure if she got the it while in Russia, or later, but either way, she got a Fabergé, she wins.
Our first stop on the tour was the gardens. We meandered through the French Parterre designed in the style of 18th century French gardens (think Versailles), then through the Rose Garden and Pet Cemetery, around the Japanese Style Garden, and made a stop in the Dacha, where they had an exhibit of some of Marjorie’s costumes. Back in the 1920’s instead of having cocktail parties in Rand Hall, the rich staged elaborate costume fetes, with hard core outfits. Marjorie’s were pretty awesome, no pictures were allowed inside so you’ll have to go check out her Marie Antoinette and American Indian costumes on your own. The umbrellas on the lawns were also awesome, her originals from the 1960’s
We also visited the greenhouses full of orchids and the cutting gardens where all the flowers that fill the house are grown. When you’re rich you don’t need to buy flowers at Whole Foods, your gardeners just grow them for you, DUH. Once done with the gardens we entered the mansion. It felt like being somewhere in Europe such as Windsor Castle or the Kaiser Apartments, wow. The entrance hall has a huge portrait of Catherine the Great (the big one over the stairs).
My favorite was the dining room. Marj had a TON of dishes and different ones are showcased throughout the house and of course on the dining room table. It was also fun to see her bedroom, closet and bathroom, complete with pink toilet paper.
I could go on and on, but bottom line, her collection is wonderful, the gardens are a perfect escape from a hot DC day, and it’s so close that you have no excuse not to get there stat! You must call ahead to make a reservation for your visit and can go any time of year, but of course warm months are better so you can enjoy the flowers!
If you need me I’ll be figuring out how I can procure my own Faberge Egg…