Socialite's estate in Washington is extravagant jewel

Foreign art showcased at Hillwood

Trips: Road Trips/Regional Events

October 28, 2004|By Natasha Lesser | Natasha Lesser,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the middle of Northwest Washington is a secret garden and a treasure-trove. Hidden behind the walls of Hillwood - the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), owner of General Foods Corp. - are beautifully landscaped grounds and an impressive collection of French and Russian decorative art. If minimalism is your thing, this isn't the place for you.

Post was a Washington socialite, multimillionaire and heir to the Post Cereal fortune. She was born the only child of Ella Merriweather and Charles William "C.W." Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Co. With her mother's death in 1912 and her father's two years later, Post, at age 27, inherited the company. She and her second husband, E.F. Hutton, transformed it into General Foods Corp.

Post began collecting 18th- and 19th-century French furniture to decorate her New York City home. Within a decade, Post's collection of French decorative art had grown so large that she started putting together a catalog.

In 1935, she divorced Hutton and married Joseph E. Davies, who was soon appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Moscow, she began collecting Russian decorative art, particularly religious pieces - icons, chalices, vestments - that were being sold off by the Soviet government for cash. This period started a lifelong passion for collecting Russian art.

Post purchased Hillwood in 1955 after divorcing Davies. She spent the next two years renovating the 1920s neo-Georgian-style house with the intention of someday turning it into a museum to share her collections with the public. While she lived there, with her fourth husband, Herbert May, she entertained extravagantly and displayed her collections for her guests. Post was involved in a number of charities, and she often held fund-raising events at her home.

The house, for the most part, is displayed as Post left it. With its mix of 18th-century French and Russian decor, the house looks like it could have belonged to a Russian aristocrat. This is not an understated look. Visitors walk in through the entry hall, with its paintings of Russian royalty and large Louis XV chandeliers made from giant droplets of rock crystal. The ornate drawing room is filled with the French furnishings and Beauvais tapestries that filled her New York home. A chair next to an extravagant, multi-drawer 18th-century desk is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. The dining-room table is set, as if ready for guests, with a changing selection of table settings from Post's extensive collection of French and Russian porcelain. Even the 1950s catering kitchen, big enough to feed hundreds, gives a sense of Post's lifestyle.

Upstairs, her bedroom is a sea of pink Louis XVI-style furnishings, with four large chandeliers hanging from the corners. Next to it is her dressing room, where she spent the morning writing letters, discussing business and going about the job of running three large homes. Down the hall, in her dressing room, is a changing display of her diamond, pearl and emerald jewels, and part of her collection of shoes, all made by cobbler to the stars Madame Bob's in New York.

On display throughout the house are Post's collections of priceless French and Russian objects. For the Russian icons and liturgical silver, Post created the Icon Room. Shown here, too, are nearly 80 pieces by Carl Faberge, including two imperial Easter eggs and a diamond-covered crown worn by the Russian Empress Alexandra when she married Czar Nicholas II in 1894. Diamonds - 1,500 of them - decorate a gold chalice commissioned by Catherine the Great as a gift to loyal clergy; it's on display in the Russian Liturgical Gallery, which, in one of the few changes to the house, was once the staff dining room.

The gardens are amazing - even more so because they are in the middle of the city. Post's bedroom looks down upon the French Parterre, a formal garden with boxwoods shaped into curving, leaflike forms. In the peaceful Japanese Garden, a stream cascades down a hill through a series of ponds and waterfalls. Pathways cut through a rose garden, stands of azaleas and woods full of American elms and other large trees, which block the view of nearby houses. Standing on the front lawn, visitors see only one manmade structure - the Washington Monument.

Also on the property is a dacha, a Russian-style cabin, built by Post to display more of her Russian art. Six greenhouses held her collection of orchids and tropical plants and provided her with flowers year-round. Even now, the museum always has elaborate bouquets of fresh flowers, a stipulation of Post's museum trust.

After taking in all this extravagance, you might be hungry. The museum's cafe serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Borscht and other Russian fare as well as salads and sandwiches are on the menu.

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