Tucked away in Northwest Washington is the largest collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia. The collection is not kept at the eerie Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue, but at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, the mansion that served as a vacation home to Marjorie Merriweather Post.
[IMGCAP(1)]The estate, open Tuesday through Saturday, is located on a quiet street in Van Ness that is a short 20-minute walk from the Metro. For a suggested donation of $12 for adults and $5 for children, visitors can take their time roaming the grounds and exploring the vast collection of Russian and French artifacts — of which there are hundreds — displayed throughout the house.
Post inherited much of her fortune from her father, C.W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Co., which created Grape Nuts and other cereals. She developed a love of Russian culture when her husband, Joseph Davies, served as ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. Because the nation had embraced communism, the newly formed government was selling off many of the assets that once belonged to the imperial family and aristocracy. Post knew an opportunity when she saw one and began snatching up everything from oil paintings of the royal family to famed Faberge eggs. Post mandated that the collection — and Hillwood — be shared upon her death.
The estate, named for a home that Post once owned in New York, was designed by John Deibert in 1926 and redesigned in the 1950s by New York-based architect Alexander McIlvaine. Post moved into the mansion in 1955 and lived there part time until her death in 1973. The home was one of several owned by Post and was also the smallest, featuring only 36 rooms; her Manhattan apartment had 54 rooms. While the house may have been small by comparison, it was still decorated for royalty.
On entering the overwhelmingly ornate mansion, visitors are met with lavish chandeliers, intricately carved furniture and enormous oil paintings of Russian royalty. Not to mention lots and lots of gold: There are gold picture frames, plates featuring designs made with the precious metal and gold-plated furniture around every turn.
Post had very specific criteria for the objects that she used to furnish her home. Craftsmanship was of the utmost importance to the heiress. She was drawn to pieces that were extremely detailed and became more beautiful on further inspection. For example, the entranceway is decorated with a set of French drawers with a marble top and gilded bronze trim. When examined closely, one can see that the wood is carved into a variety of designs with great precision.
At Hillwood, each room is more lavish than the last, making it exceedingly difficult to believe the house was decorated in the 1950s. The rooms alternate between French and Russian decorative arts, making the estate more akin to Versailles than to a post-World War II home.
The art collection on display includes two imperial Easter eggs created by the House of Faberge — about 50 of which were ever made — and the nuptial crown worn by Empress Alexandra upon her wedding to Czar Nicholas II in 1894. In fact, more than 80 works created by Carl Faberge are scattered throughout the estate. The famed imperial Easter eggs are displayed in a room bedecked with objects encrusted with gold, diamonds and other precious gems. This room is connected to the Russian porcelain room, which displays dozens of dishes, cups and bowls collected from the nation’s aristocracy.
Post was a party girl and the home was designed for entertaining. Hillwood includes a parlor complete with a movie screen and a baby grand piano. When Post had guests, they often danced in this room or viewed first-run Hollywood films on the screen. The house is also outfitted with a large dining room decorated with French paneling, Italian furniture and Chinese porcelain. The centerpiece of the room is a giant marble-topped table that could seat up to 30 guests.
The secluded home sits on 25 acres of elaborate gardens and backs up against Rock Creek Park. The smell of fresh cut grass lingers in the air at Hillwood, and the only sounds that visitors hear are birds chirping and water flowing in the fountains. A variety of gardens — including a French parterre and a sweeping lunar lawn — feature unique plants and statues.
The lunar lawn is long and flat, making it an ideal picnic spot. In fact, the museum often shows outdoor movies on the lawn in the summer. Visitors are able to bring in picnic baskets or buy their own at a cafe on the grounds. Hillwood also provides blankets that can be borrowed free of charge.
The Japanese-style garden located behind the house is the most elaborate. The multilevel garden features a series of ponds filled with fish and frogs, a bridge and more than 500 boulders, making it feel as though the garden is carved into a rocky mountain. Azaleas and rhododendrons fill the garden.
While Post may no longer live at Hillwood, her hospitable spirit lives on. The garden is peppered with tables and chairs, encouraging patrons to cool their heels and take in the views.
The Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens (4155 Linnean Ave. NW) is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and on some Sunday afternoons.