Blue Star Museums Spotlight on Hillwood Estate

By Jehan Narielvala
view of mansion with colonnaded entrance and statue and hedges in foreground

View of Motorcourt and Entrance, 2014, Hillwood Estate, Washington, DC. Photo by MacKenzie Maxwell.

Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, a Blue Star museum located in Washington, DC, is the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the “Post Cereal Heiress.” She inherited the Post Cereal Company from her father, C.W. Post, which—with her second husband E.F. Hutton—she built into the conglomerate known today as General Foods.

Along the way, Post developed a passion for collecting art, particularly French 18th-century decorative art and Russian imperial art. In the 1950s, she decided to settle down in Washington, DC as her primary residence. (Her winter residence was in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.) She bought Hillwood in 1955, planning to leave it as a museum and estate to inspire future generations. In 1977, Hillwood was opened to the public by the Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation, which continues to manage the estate today.

When I first visited the Hillwood Estate, I was enamored by the stunning architecture, its tranquility, and the sheer size of the property. As I walked up to the Motorcourt, seen above, I was greeted by a statue of Eros, the god of love well-known as the most handsome of the immortals set among, blooming azaleas and manicured hedges. Just beyond the statue sits the mansion that just seems to grow wider as you walk past the foliage covering its east and west wings. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this was only the back entrance to the mansion.

Hillwood is only a few minutes from a busy highway, yet when I arrived at property it seemed secluded from everything surrounding it. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the highway. I wasn’t swarmed by people coming from all directions. In a city as busy as Washington, DC, it feels almost too good to be true when you stumble upon a place so peaceful.

As one of the most important philanthropists of her time, Post lived a life of service, and had a long connection with the military. At her first home in DC, she held garden parties for World War II veterans. Once she moved to Hillwood, she did the same for veterans of Vietnam. Hillwood has continued Post's relationship with the military community, in part, through its participation in Blue Star museums. As Lynn Rossotti, the estate's director of marketing and visitor experience acknowledged, "Hillwood being a Blue Star Museum was a natural fit for us."

For people new to Hillwood, Rossotti highly encourages visitors to start their tour by watching the 15-minute orientation film in the Hillwood Visitor Center, which relays the history of the museum and helps the audience find what they would be most interested in discovering at Hillwood. Then take a tour of the mansion and the gardens, which Post designed to be in bloom during every season. Plan at least three hours if you want to view the mansion, the featured exhibit, and all of the Hillwood's "garden rooms,” as Post called them, all in one visit.

If you have a limited amount of time, be sure to visit the mansion first. The first thing you’ll notice when you enter the mansion is the entry hall, where you will find an amalgamation of Post's two interests—the decorative arts of 18th-century France and the fine arts of 19th- and 20th-century imperial Russia. As you make your way through two floors of paintings, tapestries, and other objects, be sure to follow along with the audio tour, which is available as a downloadable app.

Hillwood rightly prides itself on its wide variety of gardens. For example, in addition to azaleas, the Motor Court features dogwoods and purple leaf plum. The French parterre is modeled after the 18th-century formal gardens traditionally found in France, while the Japanese-style garden, designed by Shogo Myaida, brings together American and Japanese garden styles to create a harmonious and artful blend of these cultures. In all, the estate boasts 13 acres of formal gardens featuring roses, water lilies, and even orchids (in the estate's greenhouse).

To make the gardens educational and enjoyable, Rossotti suggests coming to Hillwood during the height of the main garden season, from mid-April to late June. The estate has highly trained garden docents who immerse themselves in a six-month course on the history of Hillwood's gardens. With that incredible amount of knowledge, they give informative hour-long tours of the grounds.
Visitors can also browse the gardens at their own pace with the help of printed guides or the audio tour.

In addition to the house and gardens, each June, Hillwood presents a new exhibition in the museum. This summer, the special exhibition is dedicated to the photography of Alfred Eisenstaedt, one of the most celebrated photojournalists of the 20th century and the recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1989. These special exhibits usually relate to the artwork in the mansion or the life of Marjorie Post, and this one is no exception. In 1965, Eisenstaedt photographed Post for an 18-page spread for LIFE magazine, cementing her stature as one of the most prominent women of her day . Mid-Century Master: The Photography of Alfred Eisenstaedt—which includes 50 photographs of Post and other notable celebrities as well as ephemera from Eisenstaedt's long career as a photojournalist—will be on view through January 12, 2020.

This summer we're celebrating the 10th year of Blue Star Museums, a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense, and museums across America. From Armed Forces Day to Labor Day, Hillwood is one of more than 2,000+ institutions that will open its doors for free to active-duty military personnel and their families. Find more information and a list of participating museums across the country here.