The greatest legacy one person can leave to others is to share what beauty they have enjoyed during their lifetime with the world at large. This idea and purpose is behind a growing number of Private House Museum estates, none more extraordinary than Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in northwest Washington, U.S.A.
This amazing place was once the home of socialite and founder of General Foods, Inc., Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973) who married four husbands and was, at one stage of her life, the wealthiest woman in America.
The spectacular south portico punctuates the façade of this elegant house, which is an example of the American development of the English neoclassical style.
Behind the elegant façade of the mansion considered one of Washington’s most important homes, Marjorie Post’s Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens contains one of the most comprehensive collections of fine and decorative arts anywhere in the world.
It’s a fine example of what a ‘house museum’ should be.
Marjorie Post focused mainly on collecting high quality eighteenth century French and Russian furniture and objet d’art, which is complimented by an equally exquisite array of jewelry and a personal apparel collection that documents the history of costume during her lifetime.
The exceptional collection reveals, reveres and honours some of the greatest designers, artists and craftsmen and women of their age. For visitors the experience we are promised ‘will outshine even Marjorie Post’s substantial collection of Faberge’.
One of the most famous and spectacular emerald and diamond cascade jewellery pieces the Cartier Maison ever produced was for Marjorie Merriweather Post.
An emerald and diamond pendant shoulder brooch made in 1924, it featured seven spectacular emeralds hanging from a diamond and emerald inset buckle, one of them dating from the 17th century and the Mughal Empire period in India. Emeralds, sapphires and rubies set off with only the best diamonds all took centre stage for some twenty or so years.
An active philanthropist and supporter of the arts for all her life Mrs Post was a continued supporter of Cartier right though until the 60’s.
The highly skilled workmanship of the pavé diamond ground on the buckle itself was quite exceptional, and this amazing object has always attracted a great deal of attention. It certainly captures the imagination.
Marjorie Post left her estate as a legacy to help to continue and inspire others to follow the American dream. This says that anyone can really achieve if they have equal opportunity for prosperity, in an upwardly mobile society and, through hard work regardless of their personal circumstances.
Prior to her death, to ensure her legacy would continue in perpetuity, Marjorie Post endowed her estate. The money was invested and the income is used to assist with operational, maintenance and conservation expenses, as well as to grow the collection and open it for the public’s enjoyment and continuing education opportunities, as per her wishes.
Marjorie Post had a grand selection of eighteen century porcelain pieces, both in soft and hard-paste
The biggest holding she had was from the French porcelain factory of Sèvres, whose wares she amassed and used both for display and dining. She designed built in cases to display her lovely pieces in wonderful array.
The French National porcelain factory of Sèvres was founded in 1738 at the Chateau de Vincennes. The appointment of J.J. Bachelier as its art Director in 1751 heralded the beginning of its period of its artistic greatness.
During the following year Louis XV became its principal shareholder and his mistress Madame de Pompadour also took a financial interest. By 1753 it had become the ‘Manufacture royale de porcelaine’.
At this time an edict was issued prohibiting the manufacture of porcelain anywhere else in France (including earthenware imitating white porcelain). The royal cypher of crossed ‘L’s”, which had been used occasionally before this date, now became the official factory mark.
In 1756 the factory moved to a new building in the village of Sevres just below Mme de Pompadour’s chateau at Bellevue.
However the failure of the architect to produce a building suitable for industrial design meant it fell into debt and by 1759 it was taken over wholly by King Louis XV, who became its chief client and salesman. The colour Rose Pompadour was named for the love of his life.
The King held sales annually in his private dining room at Versailles and courtiers were expected to buy. Prestige over profit became the main reason for investment in porcelain in Europe during the eighteenth century.
It was a princely sport. Products from its early period are of soft paste porcelain, which was used exclusively until 1768 and occasionally again after 1800.
The furniture in the collection is equally breathtaking.
There is a roll-top desk in the French Drawing Room that was made by David and Abraham Roentgen, whose work was of outstanding quality.
Father and son were both an exceptional pair of cabinetmakers who also applied mechanical ingenuity to much of their work.
The desk is fitted with a full range of mechanical devices that open almost forty hidden compartments and secret drawers.
Some believe it was intended for Marie Antoinette, and although plausible this has not been verified.
It is quite exceptional.
Made in Germany at Neuwied around 1765-1770 it has exceptional wood marquetry, is detailed with mother of pearl and gilt bronze, steel, leather and glass.
Marjorie Post amassed a set of Beauvais tapestries woven at the famous French factory, which was founded by two Flemish weavers, Louis Hinart and Philippe Behagle. The 1st minister and adviser to Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert was the factories greatest patron and he saw that it was subsidized by the state to survive, even though it was a private enterprise.
Woven for the wealthy bourgeoisie and nobility, the tapestry examples Marjorie Post liked were those woven to designs by Francois Boucher, who was a friend and the favourite artist of Louis V’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour.
They adorn the walls of the French Drawing Room, a room that beckons you to enter and stay for a while.
It certainly saw many distinguished guests entertained during Marjorie Post’s lifetime. Fresh flowers are gathered from the gardens so that every day the visitors feel welcomed.
It is the personal touches like this that the staff makes to ensure that the whole experience of visiting Hillwood Estate is so enchanting.
Although she didn’t perhaps consider Russian goldsmith and jeweler Peter Carl Faberge to be at the top of her tree, Marjorie Post nevertheless amassed some 90 pieces of his work. They included perhaps his most famous Faberge egg, given to her by her daughter Eleanor. It once belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia.
Unrivalled in a country that has many extraordinary decorative art collections, the Russian Imperial works Marjorie Post gathered are among the most important to have ever left that country.
She became especially enamored with Russian religious spirituality during her time there and collected great liturgical works of art, including icons and a diamond crown, which has to be seen to be believed.
This happened when she was the wife of an American Ambassador to the Soviet Union and became fascinated with Russian art and culture, an interest she maintained for the rest of her life.
Marjorie Merriweather Post was the right woman in the right place at the right time and with the ready necessary when during the 1920’s under communism, Russian leaders started selling off their cultural heritage.
This happened at state sponsored sales, which she haunted, finding the most amazing works of art lying neglected in the back rooms of state shops and storerooms
She absolutely adored Russian porcelain, admiring the lively designs and colours collecting great sets of tableware for use as well at what became her now legendary dinner parties. If you gained an invitation you really knew you had ‘arrived’.
There are four services in the Russian Porcelain room that were commissioned by Catherine the Great and having such a great provenance attracted her to purchase them.
At Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens there are 25 acres of pristine gardens, in which the flowers and plants kindly do as they are told. You can stroll in the extensive grounds if you feel in need of a quiet moment of serenity and joy, contemplating what vision, commitment, and gracious hospitality really means.
A friend in New Zealand visited recently and enjoyed it immensely, urging me to alert visitors from Australia to Washington to add it to their list of must see places when they are there.
He was entirely captivated by it all, and most especially the gardens, which contain a French Parterre, a Friendship Walk, a Rose Garden, a Japanese Style Garden, a Greenhouse, the cutting garden where flowers are purpose grown for the house, a putting green and the Pet cemetery, where all the past Post family favourite animals slumber in peace.
While many other house museums may not be able to match Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in size and scale, the role model for how to manage and present it, the type of events to hold and the aim of expanding knowledge is exceptional.
This is certainly a place where you can enjoy many magical experiences. A delightful Café offers dishes featuring vegetables and herbs from the gardens.
Must say I do like the idea of Serene Sundays. Above all their Lecture Series is second to none, and makes me wish I lived in Washington. All in All, it would be hard to resist.
Marjorie Merriweather Post was indeed a woman of influence.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013-2018 update
4155 Linnean Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
All images courtesy Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens