There were no liveried footmen lining up to serve ambassadors and senators a five-course meal on Czar Nicholas II’s imperial table service at Hillwood last Saturday, but that hardly prevented guests from feeling rather privileged to be attending an invitation-only preview of “The Myths of St. Petersburg,” an exhibition celebrating the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding by Peter the Great.
The Russian treasures amassed by the late cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post were enough to impress even the most erudite Russophiles exclaiming over the paintings, porcelain and objets de vertu on view in the estate’s dacha.
One of the more fabulous items, a diamond-encrusted golden chalice (1791) from St. Petersburg’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, drew the admiring attention of Princess Alexis (Selene) Obolensky, who looked like a latter-day Laura from “Dr. Zhivago” as she toured the exhibition in a white fur hat with pal Xenia Woyevodsky.
“Grandfather had an even better one, but after the revolution, he had to pawn it in Paris to buy a ballerina,” she said, laughingly placing one hand over her heart for dramatic effect. Similarly grandiose and often highly exaggerated claims were fairly common in the rarefied circles of Russian emigre aristocrats not so many years back.
Guests wandered through the mansion as well, pausing to look at the French furniture and porcelains, religious icons, fabled Faberge eggs and Post family memorabilia on display in the 18 rooms open to the public. Afterward, in the visitors center, there was time to have a glass of wine with Mrs. Post’s granddaughter, Ellen MacNeille Charles, and sample deruny ili draniki (potato pancakes), pashetet iz i gribov (mushroom pate) and other Russian specialties on the buffet.
Hillwood Director Frederick J. Fisher told guests that the St. Petersburg show, the museum’s first special exhibit, was a “testing of the waters” to see if future development of the 25-acre site might be feasible.
Because of neighborhood zoning regulations, Hillwood can accommodate no more than 250 visitors each day, a “visitation cap” that needs to be raised to justify the addition of exhibition space by the Merriweather Post Foundation, which owns and operates the estate. “The foundation has spent $18 million in the past ten years” on building and infrastructure projects, Mr. Fisher said, sounding hopeful that further expansion “probably underground so as not to offend the integrity of the site” will follow.