- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

During her lifetime, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post was a legendary hostess, philanthropist and art collector. Her legacy lives on today in many projects, including the spectacular Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Northwest Washington.

The 27-acre estate was purchased by Mrs. Post in the 1950s to be a residence as well as a showcase for her vast Russian art collection. After her death in 1977, Hillwood was opened as a public museum.

Today, the property holds the most extensive collection of Russian art outside of Russia, says Ellen Willenbecher, Hillwood’s deputy director for interpretation.

“When Mrs. Post bought Hillwood in 1955, she knew it would be her legacy as a public institution,” Ms. Willenbecher says. “The Russian collection certainly is a hallmark of that legacy.”

Because of the delicate art objects displayed, children younger than 6 are not permitted inside the mansion. However, school-age children and their parents will enjoy a look at the culture of imperial Russia.

Mrs. Post became a collector in the 1930s when she was married to Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the then-Soviet Union. During her time there, the Stalinist government was eager to get rid of all things religious, artistic and czarist. The Soviets’ loss was Mrs. Post’s gain. Among her collection are valuable portraits, chalices, crowns, tapestries, Faberge eggs and fine china.

The best way to take in the art objects and learn their history is through one of several docent-led or audio tours offered at Hillwood. There is a young person’s tour titled “Explore Russia! Treasure Hunting in Mrs. Post’s Mansion,” which offers a glimpse into czarist Russia that children can understand.

The tour is narrated by actors playing Mrs. Post, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra.

“The tour is developed so it is not so much about imperial Russia, but it tells the stories of the people,” Ms. Willenbecher says. “We bring to life someone from another time.”

The family tour takes visitors past portraits of the narrators and tells of their impact on Russian society. Visitors go through several rooms of the mansion, including the icon room, which is home to religious icons and chalices (goblets used for Holy Communion). There also is a magnificent bejeweled egg on display, created for the czar by the famed artist Carl Faberge for Easter 1914. It is one of 80 Faberge pieces in the collection.

One item sparkling in the case is the diamond-and-velvet crown Alexandra wore at her 1894 wedding. Equally dazzling jewels are on display in the walk-through dressing room created for Mrs. Post.

While not part of the family tour, other rooms at Hillwood capture the spirit of Hillwood as a gathering place for Washington’s social elite. There is beautiful French furniture and decor throughout. The opulent dining room, featuring an enormous banquet table and elaborate china and flatware, gives a glimpse into what entertaining was like in Mrs. Post’s day. Visitors also can walk through the 1950s-style pantry and kitchen.

The grounds around the mansion hold much to see as well. Visitors can take a self-guided garden tour through meticulously tended paths and plots. There are a rose garden and a French parterre, a formal garden with low plantings and statues. There are a Japanese garden, a putting green and a lush lawn that overlooks the Washington Monument in the distance.

There also is a pet cemetery, where some of Mrs. Post’s beloved dogs were laid to rest among the dogwoods.

Hillwood hosts several family days throughout the year. The most recent event featured hands-on activities and crafts that included a Russian fairy-tale theme. The next family day, Dec. 14, will teach visitors about the holiday season in old Russia. There will be folk tales by Father Frost, Russia’s version of Santa Claus, as well as a Russian ornament workshop.

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: Hillwood Museum and Gardens is at 4155 Linnean Ave. NW, Washington

Directions: From the Beltway, go south on Connecticut Avenue. Turn left on Tilden Street NW, then make a left on Linnean Avenue.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The museum is closed in January and on most national holidays.

Parking: Free and on-site

Admission: Because of Hillwood’s residential location, there is a limit of 250 visitors per day; therefore, reservations are strongly recommended. The reservation deposit is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $7 for full-time students and $5 for children ages 6 to 18.

Note: Children younger than 6 are not permitted in the mansion but are welcome in the gardens. The visitors center features a gift shop with unique Russian-themed art reproductions. A cafe is on the grounds. The next family day will be Dec. 14. Reservations are required. Tickets cost $5 per child, with free admission for two adults.

More information: Call 202/686-8500 or visit www.hillwoodmuseum.org.


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