Hillwood, according to the numerous bloggers out there in cyber land, is “one of the hidden gems in America” when it comes to house museums. This 36-room Georgian-style mansion was designed by architect John Deibert in 1926 for Helen Blodgett Erwin to give to her daughter, Mrs. Henry Parsons Erwin (from the days when a mansion was the only appropriate wedding gift for the rich to give their children). In 1955 Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May purchased the home (between husband three and four). She hired architect Alexander McIlvaine to reconfigure the interior to showcase her extraordinary collections, primarily from Russia, in preparation for it one day becoming a museum. Part of the redesign included moving the library doors to better frame the view of the Washington Monument.
A little background on Mrs. Post is necessary to fully comprehend the importance of this house museum. Mrs. Post was born in 1887 to Ella Merriweather and Charles William (C.W.) Post in Springfield, Ill., and was destined to be an only child. Her father had humble beginnings and with business acumen and the desire to fulfill his American Dream, he founded Postum Cereal Company. He encouraged his only daughter to attend board meetings with him and learn the business from all angles, a fortuitous move on his part as he died an early death and left his 27- year-old daughter in charge of a growing empire.
Post was an avid collector and focused business woman—and no stranger to love, having had four husbands. Her first foray into matrimony was to Edward Bennett Close of Greenwich, Conn., in 1905. This union produced two daughters. Divorcing in 1919 she then married Edward Francis (E.F.) Hutton in 1920. Mrs. Post bestowed the role of chairman of the board to husband number two. This marriage produced one daughter, Nedinia Marjorie (known to us as actress Dina Merrill), as well as multiple company acquisitions that created the need to change the name of the business to General Foods.
The year 1935 brought her third walk down the aisle, this time to Joseph Davies a Washington lawyer. During their 20-year union they settled in Washington, D. C., and Post became the hostess to high society. Davies served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (only the second to do so), and together they lived there from 1937 to 1938, which was of course during Stalin’s reign. It was at this time that Russian artwork and icons were practically being given away, and the Davieses took full advantage of the situation, purchasing (and thereby saving) multiple Russian treasures now on proud display at Hillwood).
From 1958 to 1964, Post married her fourth and final husband, Herbert May from Pittsburgh. After her final divorce she took the name Marjorie Merriweather Post, reverting back to her parents’ names.
In 1962, 11 years before her death, she bequeathed the estate to the Smithsonian Institution, along with a $10 million endowment to maintain it. The Smithsonian, for numerous reasons, was unable to convert and manage the home into a house museum so in 1976 it gifted the home and its contents back to the
Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation of the District of Columbia. Thankfully, the home is now open and showcases the magnificent 18th and 19th century French decorative arts and the most comprehensive collection of Russian artifacts outside of their native land. For more information go to: www.hillwoodmuseum.org