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Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens is the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post: socialite, daughter of the Post Cereal magnate, wife of an ambassador, businesswoman—and inveterate collector and philanthropist.
As with many museums and galleries, revisiting often sparks a renewed appreciation. In addition to the building itself—and the beautifully designed gardens surrounding it—the mansion houses an extensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century European fine and decorative art, carefully acquired throughout the life of its owner, Marjorie Merriweather Post.
The mansion itself is grand, and the collections housed in it are breathtaking in their beauty and scope. A one-hour tour affords but a glimpse of their vast variety. But noting the details helps bring the grandeur into manageable focus. For instance, consider the size of the rock crystal drops on the chandelier above the foyer, the stunningly intense shades of blue in the Sèvres porcelain, the subtle colors in the tapestries in the French drawing room, and the multitude of gems in the jewels on display throughout the house.
To experience the exquisite beauty of the furniture and appointments at Hillwood is to begin to appreciate Post’s discerning eye and her desire to create a museum where others could share her fascination with the artistry of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Her father was the earliest influence on her collecting. However, it was through dealers here and abroad that her taste was honed as her acquisition of furniture, tapestries, and porcelain increased—a passion that continued with each new home. She began acquiring French tapestries in 1919, then antique furniture. Working with some of the best-known designers and dealers played a significant role in her knowledge and appreciation of 18th- and 19th-century art and cultural treasures as her collection continued to grow.
After inheriting $250 million at age 27 from her father, Charles William Post, owner of Postum Cereal Company, Post built Mar-a-Lago between 1924 and 1927 at the cost of $7 million. She furnished it with unusual and intriguing pieces, including a Spanish rug dating to the 1500s and the stone-inlaid dining table which seats 30 and weighs 2,000 pounds. The table now resides at Hillwood, where the dining room floor had to be shored up to accommodate its weight.
In 1936, while living in Moscow as the wife of Joseph Davies, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, she purchased national treasures formerly owned by the Russian aristocracy and ecclesiastical vessels and garments—items being sold to fund the industrial revolution. Among them were gem-encrusted gold chalices and other sacred vessels from Moscow and St. Petersburg that had been washed in silver to disguise the fact that they were gold and, therefore, likely to be melted down for the military treasury.
While in Moscow, she became fascinated with Russian icons, many of which were gold-framed and studded with gems. Fortunate to be there when they were being sold off at a pittance, she purchased several, as well as various heavily-embroidered religious vestments.
According to Wilfried Zeisler, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at Hillwood, “These religious objects were first to be sold by the Soviet authorities. By acquiring them, Post preserved them for future generations to enjoy, as she did for many other works now in our collection.”
Her life in Europe ended in 1939 when war broke out, but that did not dampen her enthusiasm for collecting. From amassing Fabergé eggs of all sizes, many of which are displayed in the Icon Room on the second floor of Hillwood, it was a natural transition to small gold, silver, enameled, and bejeweled treasures: pocket and wrist watches, enamel pendants, snuff boxes in various sizes, presentation boxes, and small colorful figurines.
After her divorce from Davies in 1955, Post acquired Hillwood on 25 acres of parkland in northwest Washington and launched a two-year renovation of the estate. She began displaying the collections at Hillwood in 1957 as an educational resource and opened the museum to the public in 1977.
According to Elizabeth Axelson, Marketing, Communications, and Digital Engagement Manager, “She always intended that her acquisitions should be on view to the public and appreciated for what they were: the expression of the talents of some of the most talented artists of cultures and techniques that were centuries old.”
Personally, she admired strong women, among them Marie Antoinette of France and Catherine the Great of Russia. So when she could, Post collected portraits of these women as well as small trinkets and jewelry believed to have been owned by them. Acquiring those portraits led to a more extensive collection, which includes Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra.
She was interested in the story behind her acquisitions, too. A roll-top desk once belonging to Marie Antoinette resided in her bedroom, and her collection of jewels and jewelry includes not only pieces she chose for their sheer beauty but also gem-encrusted items of historic significance. Notable among them is the 1894 nuptial crown of Nicholas and Alexandra, designed in silver and velvet with 1,535 diamonds.
Her collection of apparel includes Russian and French reception and evening gowns from the early 20th century as well as some of her own more cherished ensembles.
A gracious hostess, she received her guests in a home whose walls were graced with beautiful art and fed them at dining tables set with treasured French porcelain, Russian crystal, and silver and gold flatware and centerpieces.
About working at Hillwood, Zeisler said, “I like the energy of the place. There is always something new to see or discover at Hillwood, be it an exhibition, seasonal change in the gardens, or a new setting on the tables…. All the rotations we do in the museum are the result of the constant study of the collection of about 20,000 various works. The collection is so diverse that there is always a new piece that is of interest and that generates a new exhibition’s concept or an idea for a new display.”
New displays have recently opened at Hillwood and will continue through the spring. See the sidebar below for specifics and check their website for additional information.
In-person visitors can enjoy Hillwood’s beauty and serenity with 13 acres of formal gardens open for strolling. Complete your visit with freshly made meals from Merriweather Café. Virtual visitors can access live events for the whole family at hillwoodmuseum.org.
Determined Women: Collectors, Artists, and Designers at Hillwood
Saturday, February 18, 2023 to Sunday, June 18, 2023
Hillwood founder Marjorie Merriweather Post was an astute business executive, discerning collector, and committed philanthropist. As a strong woman in a male-dominated world, she greatly admired her predecessors: influential women who ran countries, inspired reforms, supported culture, and created art and design. This special exhibition will explore the innovative and intrepid collectors, artists, and designers represented in Hillwood’s collection—those who set an example for Post and future women by making a place for themselves and overcoming obstacles through their determination to succeed. | Please register at hillwoodmuseum.org
© Annapolis Home Magazine
Vol. 14, No. 3 2023