- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2000

Gawking into the windows of the wealthy is a well-known but unspoken ritual of Georgetown tourists in the District of Columbia. And why not? Some street-level curtains are drawn wide open, even at night, as if the folks inside want to show off the neat stuff to the commoners.

Ellen Charles' formidable, buzzer-secure town house on 31st Street provides no such easy viewing. Yet at night, when the light is right, she can see people gazing up through the second-story window at a massive French oil painting of Mrs. Charles' grandmother, Marjorie Merriweather Post, which dominates the dining room.

"You always want to see what your neighbors are doing," says Mrs. Charles with a self-effacing laugh.

At 63, sporting chic round glasses, Mrs. Charles rests her hands on a dining chair that once sat aboard the Sea Cloud, her grandmother's four-masted, 1931 wooden yacht. (The vessel is now owned by a German consortium. When it's decommissioned, Mrs. Charles says, "I hope she doesn't end up anchored as a restaurant.")

Behind Mrs. Charles is the portrait of Mrs. Post, painted by obscure French artist Pierre Tartoure. The oil painting shows a youthful, dark-haired socialite in a black gown. A fur-lined, red-velvet cape seems to whirl about her, reflecting the energy of the philanthropist who presided over Hillwood.

"Now Grandmother is presiding over 31st Street," says Mrs. Charles, laughing again.

Mrs. Charles is the daughter of Adelaide Brevoort Close, Mrs. Post's eldest child by her first marriage, to Edward Bennett Close. Hillwood, of course, is Marjorie Merriweather Post's lush, lavish estate on Linnean Avenue NW, near Rock Creek Park and not far from Connecticut Avenue.

Now named Hillwood Museum and Gardens, the 36-room, Georgian-style mansion and gardens closed in December 1997. Nearly three years and $9 million later, Hillwood will reopen Sept. 26.

The update includes new museum lighting, restored and new plantings, additional artifacts from the vast Post storage room and a new visitors center with a film that features Mrs. Post's youngest daughter, actress Dina Merrill.

Staffers also want a new image for Mrs. Post, who died in 1973 at age 86. They're eager to focus more on Mrs. Post the collector and less on the established image of philanthropist, socialite and friend to the high and mighty.

In the Louis XVI French drawing room, autographed photos on a piano include British King George VI and Elizabeth, the current queen mother, as well as presidential pals Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. The only daughter of cereal mega-tycoon C.W. Post, Marjorie Merriweather Post married and divorced four times. Her husbands included financier E.F. Hutton and Joseph Davies, who was ambassador to Russia, Belgium and Luxembourg.

She bought the estate in 1955 to entertain with an extravagance. (Back then, this part of Northwest was still considered "rural" yet close enough to downtown.) Mrs. Post also wanted to display her collection and turn it into a house museum after her death.

Behind a heavily secured entrance visitors tour by appointment only Hillwood's rolling 25 acres reflect Mrs. Post's interests, as well. An image Mrs. Charles has of her grandmother is that of her strolling through her gardens of various styles, including formal entry, French parterre, woodland, rose, friendship and Japanese. A pet cemetery and a putting green are also on the grounds. In fact, Mrs. Post herself remains a part of the scene: Her ashes lie beneath a tall, stone column in the rose garden.

Ornate carvings in the French parterre, with its mazelike shrubbery adjacent to the house, were restored by a stone carver from the Washington National Cathedral. Horticulturists have pored over newspaper articles and even home movies to pinpoint the placement of rare orchids and tulips that dot the landscape Mrs. Post knew.

Hillwood staffers blame the three-year timetable they had hoped to open last year on myriad problems. Repairs to the mansion, which was built in 1926, were more extensive than expected. Cataloguing and then moving every item from the house into storage took months of planning and execution, let alone nerve. (Much of the inventory went on tour to eight U.S. museums.) They also encountered a lack of craftsmen. (The construction boom in this area hasn't helped the manpower shortage.)

Hillwood contains arguably the most comprehensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century imperial Russian artifacts including religious icons and chalices outside that country. This includes about 80 works by Russian jeweler Carl Faberge, including two imperial eggs, and an 1884 diamond-encrusted crown worn by Empress Alexandra when she married Nicholas II.

"I have heard through someone of our staff that the director of the Hermitage calls Hillwood 'the Hermitage of the West,' " Mrs. Charles says. (She was more impressed by the awe-struck look of Naina Yeltsin, the wife of then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who visited several years ago.)

The mansion also contains 18th-century French furniture, porcelain, tapestries and other decorative art. A distinctive piece from Mrs. Post's vast Sevres porcelain collection includes a 1779 cup with the portly profile of Benjamin Franklin, America's wily envoy to France.

Mrs. Charles says the knack of collecting passed through the family easily. Her interest is 17th- and 18th-century English and American furniture, and even porcelain dogs.

"I like it because I like it," she says, nonchalantly, in a town house lined with porcelain. "It's hard to collect when your family's collected so well."

WHAT: Hillwood Museum and Gardens (www.hillwoodmuseum.org)

WHERE: 4155 Linnean Ave. NW

WHEN: Reopens Sept. 26, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, closed most major holidays

PRICES: $10 refundable donation per person, $5 for students

PHONE: 202/686-8507

METRO: Van Ness/UDC (Red Line)

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