Since we can’t visit many of the public gardens and museums that we love, especially in springtime, I have reached back into the archives to a rainy spring Saturday a few years ago. Hillwood Estate and Gardens is not in the countryside, but in Washington D.C., however while you are there you feel miles away from city life. I hope you enjoy…
One of the first things that you see when you stand in the entry hall of the Hillwood mansion, is a very large portrait of Catherine the Great of the Russian Empire, with an inscription that reads: “She finishes what has been begun.” The same might be said about Marjorie Merriweather Post, the owner of Hillwood Estates and Gardens.
At the age of 27, Marjorie became the sole heiress to the Post Cereal fortune (her parents died within two years of one another). By the time she bought Hillwood, Post Cereal had become General Foods Corporation (on whose board she sat), she had been married and divorced four times, had three daughters, and developed a deep appreciation for the arts. For Marjorie, Hillwood was a place to live and entertain in the spring and fall, and a place to exhibit her growing art collection, and eventually bequeath as a museum.
The estate, hidden away off bustling Georgia Avenue and nestled in the woodlands of Rock Creek Park, consists of a main house, a small Russian country house (the Dacha), a greenhouse, a large cutting garden, and several themed garden rooms and walks. The mansion itself was built in the 1920s, Marjorie purchased it in 1955, and most of its rooms are decorated in a mixture of eighteenth century French and imperial Russian styles (Marjorie’s passion), with a few in the English Country style.
Admittedly this overlapping of cultural influences can have a bit of a dizzying effect at first (think Faberge Eggs and Tupperware) and lead you to puzzle over how all of it goes together—wondering what the connection is between the house, the art, the gardens, and the woman responsible for it all. But isn’t that part of the fun of going to a place like Hillwood?Really all of Hillwood is stunning, but I must confess that the rooms I that drew me in were not the grand ones like the French Drawing Room or the Russian Porcelain Room, but the smaller, more intimate rooms like the Snooze Room (not even mentioned in the brochure but just at the top of the steps with a wide sofa covered in yellow chintz to lie down on), the Breakfast Room (a bright and cheery nook within the dark, brooding dining room), and the Second Floor Library (less formal than the Main Library, and a few steps away from the Snooze Room).
I was charmed by the many small chairs throughout the rooms, strategically placed, and the wallpapered closets with hats and hatboxes and little girl dresses made for Post’s daughters. The Greenhouse, brimming with orchids, palms, ferns, and succulents, looked utilitarian and lovely. And my favorite garden room, French Parterre Garden, could be entered from the French Drawing Room and seen from the main window in the Master Suite.
Later I learned, to my pleasant surprise, that Marjorie was gossiped about for showing movies after dinner instead of encouraging conversation (people talked enough in Washington) and that she served Jello rings for dessert after every meal.A new book has recently been published about the gardens at Hillwood titled A Garden for All Seasons.
Happy May Day!
All photographs by Michael Sneeringer, Jr. @elsneero