Travel

Porcelain Palace Hillwood Is Washington’s Hermitage

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • October, 2000

by Karen Feld

“Visiting grandmother was like living in an enchanted land,” recalls Ellen MacNeille Charles. “The way she led her life was not like your ordinary grandmother.”

Not when that grandmother was cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her house a rare “collectorhouse-museum,” which, by the way, reopens this month after a three-year, $10 million face lift. Once her spring-and-fall house, Hillwood, built in the 1920s, is located on 25 acres at the edge of Rock Creek Park, one of the largest plots of private land in Washington. hillwoodPost was not only a socialite but also an astute businesswoman and passionate collector of Russian and French decorative art, which Hillwood houses. In fact, the private museum has the largest collection of porcelain outside Russia. “You must go to the Hermitage [in St. Petersburg, Russia] to see the equivalent,” says the museum’s executive director, Frederick J. Fisher. After visiting Hillwood, the wife of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin asked, “How did we let these things go?” Of course, when Post found the objects in Russia in the ’20s, many were new. “It’s so wonderful to see these beautiful things so well taken care of,” Naina Yeltsin told Post granddaughter Charles.

Post began collecting imperial Russian art while married to U.S. Ambassador Joseph Davies and living in the Soviet Union. “She wanted her guests to enjoy and study these objects,” says Charles, who is dedicated to perpetuating her grandmother1s legacy. “She recognized Russian art and appreciated porcelain.”

The collection of 16,000 objects includes Fabergé eggs and music boxes, Catherine the Great1s dinner service, and religious objects that the Russian Church sold off in the 1930s to fund industrialization. Every detail of the interior-down to Post’s original telephone and the flower arrangements-is historically accurate. There’s even a walk-in safe in the pantry for the silver, and a magnificent collection of Post’s dresses and jewelry. Be sure to peek into her linen closet. And don’t miss the collections of snuff containers, watches, glass, tapestries and lace.

POST IT! HILLWOOD MUSEUM & GARDENS, 4155 linnean avenue nw, washington, d.c.; 202-686-8500; www.hillwoodmuseum.org. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday (except February and national holidays).

 

From the moment you enter the foyer and see the large French rock-crystal chandelier, you have a privileged view of the life and lifestyle of an extraordinary woman and her home. “She was the kind of person that if some was good, a lot was better,” says Charles with impressive understatement. But “she had a great deal of curiosity, integrity, graciousness and generosity. She was a philanthropist in every sense of the word.” Post began collecting French objects and then recognized Russia. She had a flair for spotting unusual and unusually beautiful things. Two Sèvres porcelain cups and saucers are decorated with rebuses in French; when translated, one reads, “She is ravishing,” the other, “and he possesses you.”

The 12 acres of formal gardens, with their tumble of orchids, exemplify mid-20th century horticultural practices and garden design. A full-time staff of 70 maintains the 35-room mansion, grounds and cafe, which is open for lunch and tea. Take a guided tour, audio tour or self-guided tour, but reservations are a must, since the visitor limit is 250 people a day. Whatever the crowd, it’s well worth being one of them.

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