European Art · Historic Places · Museums

The Beautiful Things of Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens

Hillwood Breakfast Room
The Breakfast Room at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Garden in Washington D.C.

The last stop on my September 2018 vacation was also one of my favorites. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens is in the outskirts of Washington D.C. It is absolutely gorgeous and filled with treasures. Hillwood was one of three homes owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, the sole heiress of the Postum Cereal Company/General Foods fortune. She wasn’t the house’s original owner, but she had it extensively renovated and remade to be her own house museum. Post was a great hostess, philanthropist, and art collector, and she designed Hillwood to be the perfect place for all of these things. The house is small by the standards of what I saw earlier in my trip, though perhaps not by most other standards, but it is simply packed with rare and beautiful things. It also has thirteen acres of beautiful gardens.

Post mainly collected art and art objects from Imperial Russia and 18th-century France. Her home is filled with French and Russian porcelain, portraits of royals and nobility, French furniture, tapestries, Russian icons, paintings, and works by Faberge. Post had display cases for her extensive porcelain collection built into almost every first floor room, because she always planned for Hillwood to be a museum. The house is very light and elegant. It also contains a lot of personal touches like family photos, portraits of Post, and items like her clothing.

Even in Post’s day, Hillwood was a throwback to an earlier era. She purchased the home in the 1950s, but she decorated it to look many decades older. Most of the first and second-floor living spaces look like they’re from the 18th or 19th centuries. However, the kitchen and other working spaces were up-to-date with the era’s latest technology. It makes for a cool contrast. Despite its museum-like qualities, this is a house that a person could feel at home in.

Hillwood bedroom wedding gowns
Marjorie Merriweather Post’s bedroom at Hillwood, with wedding gowns on display.

My favorite rooms in the house were the entry hall, dining room, breakfast room, and pavilion. The entry hall has a beautiful crystal chandelier and is hung with royal French and Russian portraits all the way up the stairs. I loved the portrait bust of a beautiful French Duchess and the massive painting of Catherine the Great. The pavilion is an entertaining room with a balcony and a built-in movie projector. It is purple and silver and a cool mixture of old and modern, unlike most of the other rooms in the house. It contains two massive, Russian paintings, including a compelling scene of a traditional Russian wedding. The breakfast room is small and intimate, and its bay window provides a lovely view of the French parterre outside. One of the upstairs bedrooms is set up as a display gallery of Russian sacred arts. I saw chalices and ecclesiastical vestments there with gold, diamonds, and other glitter that rivaled even the Papal attire I saw at the Met during Heavenly Bodies. One of the main highlights was an elaborate chalice commissioned by Catherine the Great to present to a Russian monastery. You can see it below.

Hillwood Catherine the Great chalice
Chalice by Iver Windfeldt Buch, 1791. Presented by Catherine the Great to Alexander Nevsky Monastery in 1791. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Washington D.C.

Hillwood’s gardens are really beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore all of them, but I really enjoyed the parts I saw, espeically the French parterre with a fountain system and a few sphinxes in the form of 18th-century ladies. They were the most fashionable sphinxes I’ve ever seen. There’s also a lovely greenhouse. I stopped by the small pet cemetery as well. Marjorie Post loved her dogs, and she buried all her departed pets in a peaceful little area of the garden. The cemetery area is demarcated by three pairs of little dog statues, and then the actual graves are marked with simple headstones. Post gave her dogs cutesy names like Crème de Cocoa and Scampi. Post’s own grave is also located on the property, but I didn’t get to see it.

Hillwood dog statue
A dog statue in Hillwood’s pet cemetery.

At Hillwood, both audio guides and docent-led tours are included in your admission price. I chose the audio guide. Along with my audio device, they gave me a printed pamphlet with a map and a list of the numbers of each track on the tour. There are tracks for both the house and gardens. Each room in the house has a main track, which gives an overview of the room. Then, most rooms also have at least a few additional tracks that talk about specific items or aspects of the room. I’m told that the house portion of the audio tour runs about 90 minutes with all the additional tracks, but I was only able to do a few because of my own time constraints. I really enjoyed the extra tracks I did listen do, but quite a few of the pieces I was interested in weren’t options for supplemental tracks. Some sort of tour, whether it’s audio or docent, is essential for enjoying Hillwood, since there aren’t any wall labels to identify anything for you.

On the estate grounds, there an outbuilding, called the Adirondack Building, that holds special exhibitions. During my visit, it was all about Faberge, so Post’s collection of works of Faberge were there instead of in their regular places in the house. The exhibition talked about the history and development of the Faberge company, as well as the firm’s most important customers and works. In this building, I got to see my second set of Imperial Easter eggs in as many days. (The first was at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts the day before.) I feel so lucky! The Imperial eggs were particularly amazing. They have so many tiny details. I kept coming back to look at each one again, and I felt like I had never seen them before because I noticed so many new things each time. I also enjoyed a lovely pink Faberge music box; you could press a button on the display and hear a recording of it playing. And, for obvious reasons, I had fun looking at objects that once belonged to Russian Tsarina Alexandra. If you want to read more about my experience with the Faberge collections here and at VMFA, read my Art Travels piece at DailyArt Magazine.

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Hillwood presentation box Faberge
Presentation box with the cipher of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, Faberge, 1894-6. Gold, enamel, diamonds. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Garden, Washington D.C.

I really wanted a bit more time to spend at Hillwood, and I was a little sad to have to leave. I would have loved to walk through the house and to spend more time in the gardens. There’s so much to absorb in this place, and I needed more time to appreciate it all. If you visit, plan on a nice day, maybe in spring when the gardens are in full bloom, and give yourself the entire afternoon. Stay for lunch in the outdoor café so you can enjoy the lovely gardens while you eat. You can also bring snacks onto the parterre and lunar lawn, which both have seating in nice weather. Hillwood is located just outside the heart of Washington D.C. It is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday by suggested donation.

Hillwood exterior
Entering Hillwood from the Motor Court.

Fun fact for all my ballroom dance buddies: Marjorie Merriweather Post loved to dance. Her favorite dances were tango and paso doble. (Good choices!) All of her parties featured lots of dancing, and when she realized how much damage all those high heels were doing to her floors, she started handing out heel caps at her parties.

Hillwood Marjorie Merriweather Post
This wonderful experience is all thanks to Marjorie Merriweather Post.

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