Ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed rambling around the historical buildings in Washington, D.C. One of the places I visit again and again is the Hillwood Museum and Gardens. Perched high on a hilltop amidst of maze of winding streets, foreign embassies and surrounded by gardens so natural and lavish one could easily imagine they are on a country estate rather than in our nation’s capital, one arrives at one of the best collections of historic decorative objects.Hillwood was the Washington home of business woman and powerful society hostess Marjorie Merriweather Post. Thanks to Ms. Post’s generosity the Georgian style home is now an exquisite museum showcasing her wonderful assemblage of imperial Russian decorative objects (two Faberge eggs) and fine artwork, combined with French and European decorative arts including immense sets of china, lovely antiques and furnishings she collected.
Truth be told, she single handedly rescued hundreds of pieces of Russian art and religions objects from being cast aside by the Soviet Union. She is said to have entered a room where stacked in a corner, taller than her, were piles of vestments of Russian priests, embellished with gold and fine gemstones – all to be sent to the trash!
She was not just some societal “rich” woman in that indulgent Kardashian way. Ms. Post was a woman of impeccable manners, style, education and she sought out experts to school her in the items she was interested in. She took a curatorial approach to her collection and sought out the best quality and significant pieces of fine and decorative arts.Let’s start in the most non-decorative room, the kitchen. What is not to love in this big old kitchen? How about the refrigerator name: Stay’Kold? Brilliant! Okay it is the only time I like stainless steel in the kitchen, I’m not required to clean it.
Not just any kitchen but walls of cabinetry housing some of Ms. Post’s hundreds of pieces of fine china and crystal. (French and Russian porcelain has their own rooms.) Great dinners of international and philanthropic proportions were served from this state of the art kitchen from 1955 through the 1970’s. In the dining room, lined with French Regency carved oak panels the splendor of the home kicks into high gear. These blue lapis and gilt bronze Empire-style candelabras were a gift to Ms. Post on her eightieth birthday from a group of friends.
Underneath the lace tablecloth, hides a large mosaic hard stone top commissioned from Opifico delle Pietre Dure (Factory of Hard Stone) in Florence for Mar-A-Lago, Ms. Post’s Palm Beach estate. She had the table moved to Hillwood when she gave the grand Floridian palace to the United States government for it’s use. Yes, this is real gold silverware and the antique porcelain is likewise bathed in gold details. The pieces to the top left are from the Orlov Service, showing the cipher of Count Grigorii Grigo’evich Orlov, which was commissioned by Catherine the Great for her favorite. The bottom plate is from a pair of plates form the Coronation Service of Nicholas I, made by the Imperial Porcelain Factory in 1826.
As the wife of Ambassador to Russia, Joseph Davies, Ms. Post entertained distinguished guests in style. As an American heiress to the Post Cereal Company which she later transformed to the General Foods, Ms. Post was a student of fine living and beautiful objects.
Everywhere one looks, you are surrounded by beautiful things. This beautiful chandelier highlights the charming breakfast room bathed in light looks out onto the main lawn of the home over looking the Washington skyline. This malachite table (of course it is real) is typical of a piece of fine Russian furniture. Malachite, mined in Russia made frequent appearances in the most elegant of Russian objects and furnishings.Pictures of Ms. Post are welcomed on top of this hand painted chest. Hmmm, do I spy a Cartier picture frame? Think so. Ms. Post had a passion for beautiful things. One of the cases in the French Porcelain room displays pieces from the numerous collections of Sèvres porcelain she loved. Turquoise was a lifelong favorite color. A couple of the plates shown are from the very expensive 1771 dessert service commissioned by Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan for his appointment as ambassador extraordinaire to Vienna. Now we get to the Faberge, displayed in the Icon room. The Icon room is like this home’s treasury dedicated to Russian gold and silver objects, liturgical places and icons. Many of the silver pieces, tarnished when found and thought to be pewter, were purchased for just five cents per gram in weight from the Soviets who had no interest in such objects other than melting them down.
The Catherine the Great Easter Egg by Faberge given by Nicholas II to his mother, Maria Fedorovna in 1914 is surrounded by other Faberge items. The music box which dates from 1907, depicts six of the Iusupov palaces in sepia enamel.The Adam Bedroom, one of the two guest bedrooms in the home, showcases the “adam style” a version of neoclassicism popularized in England in the eighteenth century. The color scheme takes its cue from the Wedgewood blue jasperware.
This was a period in decorating where balance played a big role. What is on one side of the room perfectly matches the other. Two twin beds, two lamps, the chairs and more. Even the rug pattern matches the plasterwork on the ceiling. This where we end our pictorial tour of Hillwood where a lovely portrait of Ms. Post hangs over the mantel.
Marjorie Merriweather Post’s lifelong pursuit of fine and decorative arts showcases the heart of an ardent collector. Each individual purchase was approved by her. We are the lucky recipients of her affinity for splendor. Walking through the rooms of Hillwood one can appreciate the fine craftsmanship and detail found in fine objects from the past.
Craftsmanship which is born from a hand rather than a machine offers a beauty not found in today’s world of mass production. If you ever find yourself in Washington D.C. a visit to Hillwood will enlighten your soul and hone your eye for what is truly beautiful.