I’ve visited many fine European palaces, and Hillwood Estate in Washington, DC, can compete with just about any of them. Hillwood was owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the richest women in America during her lifetime. She was the sole heir to the Post Cereal Company, which she later turned into General Foods. Marjorie owned many grand residences as befitting her wealth, including Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago (yes, the one now belonging to a certain U.S. president), a sprawling resort in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and a palatial 54-room NYC penthouse. But Hillwood Estate is the only one that maintains Marjorie’s legacy. Even better, it’s open for tours.
Marjorie began collecting French antiques in the 1920s to decorate her residences. In 1935, she married Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Their tenure in Moscow coincided with the Communist government’s sale of religious and imperial artifacts to raise funds for its grand industrialization plans. Upon her return to Washington, DC, Marjorie brought along what would become the largest collection of pre-revolution Russian antiques to exist outside of Russia. She installed her treasure trove at her Hillwood mansion in specially designed rooms for visitors to enjoy.
It’s possible to take a Hillwood mansion tour, but I opted to walk around at my own pace. The guards are knowledgeable and shared many fascinating tidbits. For example, the large vase below dates to Catherine the Great’s reign in the 18th century. Sadly, Bolsheviks pried off the imperial emblem before Marjorie could rescue it.
Two of the most precious items in Marjorie’s collection are Imperial Easter Eggs from the House of Faberge. In 1885, Czar Alexander III commissioned Russian jeweler Peter Carl Faberge to create a special Easter gift for his wife, Maria Fedorovna. The resulting egg was so well-received that it became an annual tradition. Both of Marjorie’s Imperial Eggs were gifts from Nicolas II to his mother, Maria. The blue egg is called the Twelve Monograms and dates to 1896. The pink cameo is known as the Catherine the Great Egg and was made in 1914. According to a guard, Marjorie’s grandchildren liked to play with the eggs and roll them around the house!
Another astonishing showpiece is the Russian Nuptial Crown, which is encrusted with 1,535 diamonds! The crown was worn by grand duchesses on their wedding day; the last to don it was Alexandra Fedorovna during her fateful marriage to Nicholas II. The Russian government sold the crown at auction at Christie’s London in 1927 and Marjorie acquired it several decades later. The crown is housed in a special gallery along with Catherine the Great’s gold chalice and sacred icons of the Russian Orthodox religion.
The rest of the mansion is arranged as it was during Marjorie’s life. The French drawing room, where she received her guests, is adorned with Beauvais tapestries and Sevres porcelain. The splendor continues in the dining room, which features oak wall paneling taken from an 18th century house in Paris. In addition to her legendary dinner parties, Marjorie hosted movie screenings in a specially designed room with speakers built into the ceiling and theater seating on the balcony.
The most intimate of the public rooms on the ground floor is the library, where visitors can see a model of Marjorie’s yacht, the Sea Cloud, as well as portraits of her parents. I toured the mansion in December, when many rooms were brightened with Christmas trees.
Marjorie’s bedroom suite, on the second level, is as sumptuous as you can imagine. Cream walls and 18th century French furnishings are offset with dusky rose curtains and dreamy paintings. The ensuite bathroom is a pink marble fantasy circa the 1950s. Two walk-in closets the size of Manhattan studio apartments feature rotating clothing displays.
The real highlight, though, are the dazzling jewels. You’ll be gobsmacked by the glitter! Amethyst and turquoise pieces by Cartier and Harry Winston were on view during my visit. If you want to see more, check out the National Museum of Natural History – Marjorie left several of her most exquisite pieces to the Smithsonian.
Don’t miss Marjorie’s personal salon which has an original hair dryer and permanent wave machine. The things women go through in the name of beauty…
Hillwood Estate is spread across 25 acres in northwest Washington, DC. The formal French parterre garden is visible from Marjorie’s bedroom, while her ashes are interred in the adjacent rose garden. Marjorie’s beloved dogs are laid to rest in their own cemetery right next to a replica Russian dacha, or country house. The estate has a nine-hole putting green as well as an elaborate Japanese-style garden. Marjorie’s guests certainly didn’t want for entertainment!
Would you like to take a Hillwood mansion tour?
Check out my guide to Estonia’s Kadriorg Palace, which was built by the first Russian Czar Peter the Great.