By: Elizabeth Kamosa
The front door wouldn’t budge. I tried it again. Still nothing. “Is it locked?” I thought to myself, perplexed. But before I could answer my own question, the golden door knob clicked and a group of lively middle-aged people came bustling out. I stepped back and let them pass. I quickly made a small leap over the threshold before the towering door shut. At once I was struck with a regal air, as I stepped into the extravagant foyer. A chandelier glittered above, hanging on a red velvet cord from the haughty ceiling. Yellowed light filtered in from a large window on the second floor and reflected off of the bright grey marble on the surrounding floor and walls. The eyes of at least 30 portraits watched me carefully from their heavy gold-gilded frames. And a pair of wary eyes from a darkly dressed security guard seemed to pay close attention to my every move.
I had not been to Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, which is hidden within the lush depths of Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., in quite some time. The last time I had visited was with my family and grandmother. I vaguely remembered it. The employees at the visitor’s center had given me an audio guide that I pressed to my ear. The audio recording was organized by number and corresponded with the various rooms and places on the estate. I began to remember the flow of facts and memories as the automated British voice told a story for each room and section.
The estate was once owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post. Marjorie was not a European princess as I had once thought when I had visited long ago. She was an American socialite and the owner of the General Foods, Inc. Through hard work, innovative entrepreneurship, independence, worldly connections, and five marriages, she became the wealthiest woman of her time (she lived from 1887 to 1973) with a fortune of about $250 million.
Marjorie’s love for the arts began when she mingled with social figures and art collectors in the cosmopolitan circles of Manhattan. She first started seriously collecting French decorative arts in 1919 after the divorce from her first husband, Bennett Close. She then married business man, Edward F. Hutton, with whom she transformed the family company into the General Foods Corporation. Afterwards, she lived in Russia with her third husband, United States Ambassador Joseph E. Davies. A year in Russia gave her the chance to discover its imperial art, which became her lifelong passion. When her marriage to Davies ended in 1955, she purchased the Hillwood Estate. Her last marriage to Herbert May also ended in divorce, and she again became known Marjorie Merriweather Post.
“She was hoping for Paris but went to Russia. She took adversity and turned it around and made it positive,” Vee Smith said admiringly. Vee, a lanky middle-aged woman with chocolate skin and kind eyes, works at Hillwood during the week. We were standing on the first floor of the mansion in the Icon Room, which is filled with countless sparkling pieces, most associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. She bought many of the items during a period in the 1930s. The Soviet government was purging its imperial arts to raise currency to finance its industrial program. Marjorie saw this as an opportunity to save many of these historic items from being brought into the wrong hands or damaged. “I think she wanted to be surrounded by beautiful things and have something that is interesting to other people,” Vee said as she led me to another room.
Hillwood Estate has become a unique place to visit; it has the welcoming feel of a lavish home, the culture of a history-rich museum and the allure of a well-kept garden. Each room of the mansion has its own theme, decorated with the treasures she collected over the years. The estate is a rare combination of different time periods, different forms of art, and different cultures. The French drawing room boasts wood paneling and a mantel from Parisian homes, tapestries from the Beauvais factory in France, and a portrait of the Duchess of Parma. Many of these pieces and others date back to the time before or during King Louis XVI’s reign from 1774-1792. The library’s features are mostly English, as well as the English bedroom. The kitchen has a modern, American 1950s style. The dining room holds French décor, as well as four large Dutch paintings and an intricate Italian table. Marjorie collected décor and art from around the world, yet her favorite artwork comes from Russia. Almost every room in the house has a piece from Russia, including sparkling Faberge eggs, historic paintings, icons, chalices, and chandeliers, among others.
Vee and I stepped into the French drawing room and she gestured toward a small, low chair. The fabric on the swivel chair was a yellowing pink and the wood had a darkening gold gild. The chair looked like it had been used many times; the cushion that was once taught was now rippled like a small, round ocean. It was no longer used and sat stagnantly among the other furniture. The chair seemed somewhat lonely, as if it could never find its pair, much like Marjorie. However, I had a strong notion that Marjorie was never lonely while tending to her daughters, friends and staff. “This chair belonged to Marie Antoinette,” Vee said. “She did her hair in it.” My mind leapt to the tall grey wigs that would weigh down royalty’s heads in the 1700s. I touched my own hair and said appreciatively, “I’m glad all I have to do is brush my hair!” We laughed and I thought to myself, “And keep my head…”
As the afternoon turned to evening, the voices dwindled to echoes on the first floor of the house. I walked around the second floor and the aged wooden boards creaked as I stepped into the library. The smell of something dusty and faintly sweet drifted under my nose. It reminded me of my grandmother and a faded soap she would use that wavered in the air when we hugged. I hesitated and looked around the room. I could picture Marjorie lounging in one of the floral upholstered love seats by the fireplace, a silk robe wrapped around her aging body and loose grey curls surrounding her attentive face. I closed my eyes and sensed that this is where she would have read many books. The sound of a crisp page turning seemed to haunt my ears. I could sense her absorbing the silence that settles around a home when a day of entertaining guests is over and the voices of the day only remain in one’s memory. This was a place of peace among the many sanctuaries of her home.
The gardens outside includes French Parterre, the Friendship Garden, the Japanese-Style Garden, the Greenhouse, and the Rose Garden which holds the urn with Marjorie’s ashes. The elevated urn is surrounded by fragrant roses in shades of pink, yellow and red. The urn is engraved with the Post family coat of arms and a Latin inscription that translates to, “All my hopes rest in me.” This motto was fitting for the self-sufficient and independent Marjorie Merriweather Post
“She was a really interesting lady for her time,” Elizabeth, a young woman with clear blue eyes and a pale round face, explained to me. Elizabeth is another woman who has devoted her time to Hillwood. Elizabeth explained that Marjorie had inherited the family’s business but grew her power by becoming the head of the board. “She was also a big supporter for the right to vote,” Elizabeth said, a smile lingering in her voice, “and she even spoke about voting rights to the president.” Elizabeth and I both agreed that Marjorie was a “cool gal.”
A few visitors lingered in the Japanese garden. This would have been another one of the sanctuaries Marjorie would have escaped to, but right now it was still filled with voices. The shouting of two young boys reverberated against the gurgling waterfall and the curves of the washed-out Japanese bridges. They vied for their mothers’ attention as they competitively jumped along a slate stoned path that spanned across an algae darkened pond. “Watch this!” they yelled as they leapt and bound through the clear autumn air. She stood watching them. Her chic orange poncho was lifted by her hands on her hips. Her rouge lips were pursed, hiding a smile, but her eyes sparkled as she watched her sons. “I see you, I see you!” their mom exclaimed, pretending to be annoyed.
A temporary art exhibit is housed in a section of the garden. Four immense, three dimensional portrait busts render fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other natural features to give the allusion of a face and different seasons. The contemporary American artist and filmmaker Philip Haas’s sculptures are inspired by the series, The Seasons, by Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Acrimboldo (1526-1593). The same rowdy children and mother had followed me to this side of the garden as well. “Mom!” the younger boy frantically called while he pointed to the summer bust, “Look at this one; it’s my favorite!” The mother passed me and we exchanged warm, knowing smiles. “I see it,” she said calmly, staring up at the strangely textured face that contrasted against the pale blue sky.
Near one of the gardens on the side of the house is a café area. In Marjorie’s time, it was used a car park and garage. The area has an indoors restaurant that is upscale and formal and an outside area that is informal called Express Dining. I chose to eat a turkey sandwich in the outside space. I sat alone at a sun bleached table and people watched as I ate my sandwich. The spot where I sat was peaceful and quiet. Two elderly women were deep in a conversation next to me. I believe they were talking about another woman they knew. At first I thought one of the women had a British accent but then as I listened closer, I noticed that it actually sounded Russian.
Another section of the garden holds Marjorie’s pet cemetery. Two limestone poodles greeted me as I followed along the path. The cemetery was built to commemorate the pet dogs that Marjorie had throughout her life. The dog that she particularly loved was her last dog, a schnauzer featured in a few photos named Scampi. As I walked through the small, calm cemetery I remembered my own “pet cemetery.” While I was growing up my family owned two tabby cats. One of them was named Buster and the other Scooch. They were very dear to me as a child and when they died I was heartbroken; we put them to rest at the end of our back yard. We also had a pet goldfish. His name was Goldy. I thought he was going to be similar to gold and last forever but he died the day after we got him. Goldy was also added to the pet cemetery. Our pet cemetery is among trees, grass, and a creek in our back yard. Marjorie must have felt that nature was a nice place to let her pets rest. My family and I did too.
Marjorie had a Dacha and Adirondack Building built on the grounds of her estate. The Dacha is a replica of a Russian country house, with whole-log construction and elaborate carvings around the windows and door. The Adirondack Building evokes a similar architectural style of Camp Topridge, Post’s summer retreat in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The Dacha and the Adirondack Building hold temporary art exhibits. The exhibit within the buildings when I visited was the Deco Japan exhibit. The exhibit displays Japanese art from the art deco period of the 1920s to the 1940s. The art combines the tradition of Japanese art with the modern era and machine age. Most of the printed art depicts Japanese women in various poses and actions. The women dance in fluid motions that were popular during the time period. They seem to come to life as I pass each one with curious eyes. The tradition of the art is old, yet the faces and style amongst the figures were young during the time they were made. The modern age of the art in this exhibit is distinctly different from the imperial art within the mansion. Although I did notice a trend of feminine and womanly art.
While I was in the Deco Japan exhibit, I spoke to the security guard of the exhibit, Michael. He was from Ghana and loved the atmosphere and culture of Hillwood so much that he has worked there for three years. I met another security guard when leaving the mansion. He had been watching the front doors carefully throughout the day. I noticed him earlier when I was speaking to Vee. It seemed as if he wanted to speak with me as well. So I asked him why he liked working at Hillwood. To my surprise he had a Russian accent. He said in a thick accent that emphasized on certain syllables, “I have been working here four years as security guard, but I am from Uzbekistan.” He was friendly despite the sharp appearance of his exotic, pointed nose and dark eyes. I asked him his named and he showed me his name tag but covered up his last name for confidentiality, it read “Elyor.” Elyor explained that even though he was from Uzbekistan, he feels a connection to the Russian culture. His father was from Uzbekistan and his mother was from Russia. He recommended that if I ever go to Russia, I should go to St. Petersburg rather than Moscow. “St. Petersburg had the Romanov family,” he said, gesturing to some of the proud royal portraits that watched us from their lofty dwellings on the walls.
As I gave the visitor center back its audio guide, I also met an elderly woman named Marina. I learned that she usually volunteers at Hillwood on Sundays.
“I hope you enjoyed your visit,” she said in a thick Russian accent as she approached me. The crows-feet crinkled like a worn letter around her deep blue eyes as she smiled. “I did, everything was interesting and beautiful. Are you from Russia?” I asked. “I’m actually from Ukraine,” she replied in fond whisper. “But I love Russian culture.”
After visiting Hillwood, I wondered why I was drawn to it again after so many years. I then realized that Marjorie and I were similar in many ways. No, I did not have her intense amount of wealth. No, I don’t have countless artifacts and pieces of art from around the world. No, I don’t have an extravagant mansion. And no, I definitely have not had five husbands. But I do have her sense of independence. My entrepreneurial spirit is similar to that of Marjorie. I have the same love for art, animals and nature. And I have the same love of worldly cultures and meeting people from around the world. I remembered closing the tall white door I had entered not long ago. This time it was so much easier to open and close. I knew I would always be welcome at Marjorie’s home.