Thursday, April 10, 2014

All That Glitters

In this case, it really is gold. Hillwood, the Washington D.C. mansion of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), is chock full of important French furniture and decorative arts. It is far more famous, however, for housing the largest collection of Czarist-era Russian art - Faberge eggs, precious icons, the diamond marriage crown of the last empress, golden chalices, etc., etc. - outside Russia. All this glittering loot is not, however, the subject of today's post. My subject is Mrs. Post's house.

Marjorie Post was the only child of Postum Cereal Company founder, Charles William (C.W.) Post (1854-1914). Mr. Post doted on his clever daughter, took her with him on business trips, explained his business to her, even let her sit in on company meetings. Post employed a thousand people in the town of Battle Creek, MI, became rich selling cereal, and flabbergasted the world in 1914 when he put a gun to his head and blew his brains out. He was 59 years old. Nine years prior to this horrendous event, Marjorie, at age 18, had married her first husband, Edward Bennett Close (1882-1955), a Connecticut socialite who took her to Greenwich, gave her two daughters and settled her in a big house on the Sound. Tea parties, small children, Greenwich...boring. She divorced him in 1919

A year later she married Edward Francis (E.F.) Hutton (1875-1962), whom she called Ned to distinguish him from husband #1. In 1904 Hutton founded the firm of E.F. Hutton & Co., once the second largest brokerage firm in America. (It merged with Shearson Lehman/American Express in 1988). Ned and Marjorie were a pair of lookers, as was their only daughter, Nedenia (born 1923), who, when she became an actress, changed her name to Dina Merrill. The same year Nedenia was born, Hutton became Postum's board chairman. By 1929, he and Marjorie had together transformed Postum into the General Foods Corporation, the uber-profitable purveyor of Jell-O, Hellman's, Log Cabin, Sanka, Maxwell House, Birds Eye, etc., etc. Unfortunately Hutton couldn't keep it in his pants. After ignoring a figurative cacophony of flapping red flags, Marjorie woke up, lost her temper and divorced him in 1935. Oddly, for a woman who had grown up with a close father-daughter relationship, her divorce decree effectively forbade Hutton from seeing his daughter. Well, not quite forbade perhaps, but every other Xmas, every other Spring vacation, and one month every other summer had the unsurprising effect of sundering a formerly close relationship.

Almost immediately after her divorce, Marjorie married husband #3, Joseph E. Davies (1876-1958), a lawyer, diplomat, former Federal Trade Commission chairman and, between 1936 and 1938, America's ambassador to Soviet Russia. Moving to Moscow might have seemed a hardship, but for the magnificent (and totally bugged) embassy building, the comforting presence of Marjorie's yacht at Leningrad, and her discovery of pre-revolutionary Russian art. The kleptomaniacal Soviet government, having stolen everything of value from its people, and now finding itself practically broke, was only too pleased to sell artistic national treasures for practically nothing. Thus began Marjorie's lifelong passion for Russian art. After the war, Ambassador and Mrs. Davies were for some years the toast of Washington society, entertaining grandly in a big house called Tregaron (now the Washington International School). Alas, by 1955 the marriage had degenerated into figurative guerilla warfare. Maybe not so figurative; for example, one night in the middle of the breakup Marjorie sent a raiding party to dig up and cart away all the azaleas around Tregaron.

Having decided to wash that man right out of her hair, she legally changed her name to Mrs Marjorie Merriweather Post, gave Tregaron (minus flowering bushes) to Davies, and set about locating a suitable home for her French and Russian treasures, not to mention herself. In 1951, for what seems today the very modest sum of $200,000, she had sold to Long Island University a house in Brookville, Long Island called Hillwood, which she and Hutton had built shortly after their marriage in 1920. Rather like the Beatles, who had a driver but not a car, Marjorie had a name but not a house, but not for long.

In the same year as her 3rd divorce, 1955, Mrs. Post purchased Arbremont, home of the late Col. Henry Parsons Erwin (1881-1953), then still occupied by his widow. Arbremont, a handsome Georgian Revival mansion on 25 acres adjoining Rock Creek Park, was designed in 1925 by John Deibert, an architect about whom I cannot find a single citation - aside from the misleading assertion that he designed the present Hillwood. Arbremont had been a gift from Erwin's mother-in-law, Daisy Peck Blodgett, who in 1893 had married a 68-year old Michigan lumber baron named Delos A. Blodgett (1825-1908). Blodgett's "Grand Rapids Herald" obit of 11.2.08 notes (obscurely) that he was "an agnostic, believing in one world at a time." After her husband's death the widow Blodgett moved to Washington with her husband's late life daughter, the future Mrs. Erwin. Arbremont's pretty name only coincidentally sounds like a Francophonic version of Hillwood.

Arbremont, unfortunately, was a tear-down, replaced by a new house which, as far as I can tell, preserved only a few sections of the original exterior walls. The new Hillwood, was designed by a well born New Yorker named Alexander (Sandy) McIlvaine (1910-1985), whose Harvard classmate, Alexander (also Sandy) Rumbough had in 1946 married Mrs. Post's daughter, Dina Merrill. McIlvaine was also a nephew of William Adams Delano, partner in the famous architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich. After their deaths, McIlvaine continued to practice in their Murray Hill office under his own name. McIlvaine was as much a sportsman as an architect, an avid skiier, designer of ski lodges from Stratton to Windham to Camelback, and inventor of an improved chair lift. If he designed other big houses, I haven't found them.

McIlvaine replaced Deibert's restrained Arbremont...

...with a very different breed of cat. Hillwood is a distinct, if unusual, product of the 1950s. It combines period rooms worthy of Newport in the 1890s, with bathrooms a la Sherle Wagner and up-to-the-minute (ca. 1955) kitchen, pantry and service suites (at least, those I saw), all coexisting within a slightly jazzed up Georgian Revival-ish envelope topped off with a vaguely French roof and a porte cochere designed with just a whiff of Vegas.

The interior plan is completely different. The drawing room and pavilion on the west are additions. The original footprint has been extended on the east as well, with an expanded dining room and service suites. All the major rooms are now separated by anterooms, usually given over to displays of precious porcelains. Hillwood was built for eventual conversion to museum use, but as long as Mrs Post lived, it was a glittering private jewel box of art, and a sumptuous venue for frequent entertainments.

These days you can't drive through the main gate, so we'll have to pretend.

The differences between Arbremont and Hillwood are not immediately noticeable on the south or garden front. The 2-story porch appears unchanged. However, where there were originally 3 bays on either side of it, now there are 5 bays on the west (left) and 6 on the east (right), and the porch is no longer really centered. The dormered roof is different too. It gives the house more presence, but does so at the cost of its original delicacy. Mrs. Post reportedly insisted on an expensive alteration of the south facade in order to create a visual axis from the front door, through the center of the columned porch, to the Washington Monument 6 miles distant. This is a good story, although looking at the porch and surviving fenestration, I don't see how it was done.

Arbremont's sunporch has been replaced by Hillwood's French drawing room. The former walled garden with reflecting pool is now a French parterre.

The grounds are elaborately landscaped and the house is surrounded by elegant outdoor rooms.

However, it's raining, so let's get inside.

It took two years to build Hillwood. Bear in mind this grand double-height stairhall, except for the recessed lighting, is all 1950s work. Members of the Russian imperial family, putting aside their shortcomings as rulers, were nothing if not decorative. Portraits of them adorn the entrance hall walls, from Catherine the Great to Nicolas II.

Here's the main hall looking east to an anteroom outside the dining room.

This view looks south from the main hall, across the library, and (supposedly) through that curtained window to the distant Washington Monument. I couldn't see it, even from the lawn, but maybe that was because of the rain.

This door opens off the north wall of the hall, into a ladies' dressing and powder room, a '50s period piece if ever there was, which I talked my way into with effort.

At the western end of the hall, a small room full of Russian porcelain serves as anteroom to the French drawing room.

This room and Mrs. Post's bedroom suite upstairs are part of McIlvaine's 1955 additions. Quite aside from the museum quality French furniture, tapestries, objets d'art and paintings, is the superb period design and finish of the room itself.

Before her love affair with Imperial Russia, Mrs. Post was a serious collector of things French. The swivel chair below belonged to Marie Antoinette.

On the other side of the Russian porcelain anteroom is the so-called Icon Room, filled not just with icons, but Faberge eggs, the unlucky Empress Alexandra's wedding crown, and a great deal of gorgeous pre-revolutionary silver. The Soviets, who considered it junk, sold it by weight for 5 cents a gram.

Another small anteroom leads to the library, whose three french doors open south onto the columned porch.

Another anteroom on the east connects to the dining room.

It's a tossup between drawing and dining rooms as to which is the grandest in the house. The dining room boiserie, removed from a Parisian mansion (at least the antique parts), was sold and installed by Mitchell Samuel's famous French & Co., founded in New York in 1907. One hundred craftsmen were dispatched to Washington for the Post job, to paint, plaster, fit new sections of oak between the old panels and horrify Mrs. Post by the cost.

So much for antique boiserie. Let's go see something really interesting - the butler's pantry!

In last week's post I visited Harry du Pont's retirement house, called the Cottage, in Wilmington, DE. The Cottage has pantries and a kitchen very much like Mrs. Post's, the difference being that during the half century they've been kicked around. Arbremont's 1920s era service suites undoubtedly would have appealed to me more, but Hillwood's are still great. They remind me of a 1962 Buick Electra 225 that belonged to a high school girlfriend's father, a man who would have strangled me had he ever discovered I was driving it.

I wouldn't doubt the engine room in Mrs. Post's famous yacht "Sea Cloud" was as immaculate as her kitchen at Hillwood.

At the other end of the hall from the dining room, just out of view on the left in the image below, is a corridor leading to the Pavilion.

The succession of house parties, annual parties, dinner parties, galas, etc., demanded a venue for after-dinner entertainment. The pavilion, attached to the north side of house and screened from the drive by evergreen shrubbery, was most often used as a private movie theatre. It proved ideal as well for Mrs. Post's late life fascination with square dancing. Few of her friends shared this penchant, although fewer dared turn down an invitation from Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Time to climb the grand stair, every inch of which is McIlvaine's (or maybe French & Co's), peek into an oddly named non-bedroom at the top called the Snooze Room, then continue to Mrs. Post's suite above the drawing room.

Mrs. Post's private bedroom corridor, full of more collectables.

Finally, the owner's bedroom, which is a good place to mention Mrs. Post's 4th and last husband. Swearing she was done with men after Joe Davies, even legally changing her name to Mrs. Post, Marjorie turned around in 1958 and surprised everyone by marrying Herbert Arthur May. Her first husband was a bore, the second a philanderer, number three was nuts, and the fourth turned out to be gay. Everybody knew it except Marjorie, who might have remained (willfully) ignorant had Mr. May not made the serious error of alienating Margaret Voigt, his wife's long time personal secretary/assistant. Who exactly paid for those photos of Herb, naked as a jaybird, cavorting poolside at Mar-a-Lago with a passel of equally naked boys? No proof, but lots of suspicions. May was gone by 1964.

Marjorie's beautiful dressing room, which is exactly my taste, served as an informal office. Beyond it is her bath.

Clothes closets and a large safe are arranged along an adjacent corridor.

The door to the Adam room, tenanted for a spell by Mr. May, opens onto the private hall in his wife's suite. Together with a small dressing room, bath (unviewable, alas) and closet, it overlooks the south lawn.

Atop the formal library on the main floor is this private family library, designed originally as part of the Adam bedroom suite.

From the library, we crossed the 2nd floor hall for a peek, across a rope, of a north facing guestroom. And here, unexpectedly, my tour came to an abrupt halt. With 40% of the house as yet unvisited (including important features like back stairs, servants' hall, maids' rooms, service baths, butler's apartment if there was, servants' bathrooms, etc., etc.), and despite my polite and repeated requests that we continue, I was met with equally polite but intractable refusal.

Instead, we took the elevator, and then a pair of descending stairs, to the bomb shelter.

Some of my readers will remember the Cold War fad for private fallout shelters, and/or school drills during which we took shelter under our desks, in retrospect a not very efficient protection against atomic bomb attack. There are 3 shelters at Hillwood. This one is equipped with a flat screen monitor that plays an instructive video.

I enjoyed visiting Hillwood, in spite of my thwarted expectations for a thorough tour. The focus of "Big Old Houses," after all, is architectural. In addition to the French and Russian collections the Hillwood Museum offers visitors fine gardens, interesting outbuildings, and spacious woodlands barely a mile from Georgetown. The link is

Floor plans and vintage views of Arbremont courtesy Hillwood Museum.


  1. Once again, John, thanks for the splendid tour. I've been to Hillwood a few times now and, along with Tudor Place, it is a "must see" for my every visit to DC. Though you were thwarted from seeing all of the behind the scenes areas, you did get to see more than the average bear. Like so much else at Hillwood, those pedestal sinks in the Ladies' Loo off the main hall are over the top and now, thanks to you, I've seen them! Did you happen to notice that there are one or two of the enameled cups that figured so prominently in the Khodynka tragedy displayed in a case on the 2nd floor landing? I've seen the Washington Monument from Hillwood, but it is almost obscured by the trees, etc. I suspect it was the rain that kept you from seeing it. But a good reason for a return visit, eh? Again, thanks so much for this fun mini vacation. Reading your postings is a Thursday highlite! Cheers, Brendan

  2. Such a spectacular collection of discards, remnants and junk being sold off by the Soviets and smartly obtained by Mrs Post. With the impossibly foolish sale of the Faberge egg collection by the heirs of the late Malcolm Forbes, this is really the only place in the US to enjoy such Czarist opulence without booking a trip to St. Petersburg. Thanks for the mini-vacation and cultural tour.

  3. Extremely interesting, thank you. I've wanted to visit Hillwood for sometime so it's now at the top of my list next time we go to DC. A very handsome setting for Mrs. Post's collections.

    Interestingly, in his fascinating book on the sale/reuse of historic rooms (mostly paneling) titled "Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages", John Harris has faint praise for French & Company's work at Hillwood, calling it at best "wishy washy".

    At one point, Mrs. Post also owned an enormous house on 5th Avenue in NYC. As traffic on the avenue increased and the cost of running the place soared, she had it torn down and replaced by a luxury apartment house with, naturally, a very spacious apartment for herself.

    1. The 5 th Ave residence was a 54 room triplex, and amazingly was a rental rather than a co-op. It was only used for about five years, sat empty for ten, then was subdivided into six nine room units.

  4. The most recent Faberge Easter Egg for-sale went for over 30 million. We see that Mrs Post owned the Grisaille (also known as the Catherine the Great Egg). Lovely. I saw 26 Faberge eggs in 1989....its amazing how small and how dusty they were!. [ In 1989, as part of the San Diego Arts Festival, 26 Faberge eggs were loaned for display at the San Diego Museum of Art, the largest exhibition of Faberge eggs anywhere since the Russian Revolution.]

    Its most interesting what a lot of money can buy. At least we can all now see how she lived in her world of make-believe Russian aristocracy. I think she really wanted to be Catherine the Great. Its also fascinating to see how the 1950s shine bright in the kitchen areas.

    There you are John...right by the stove on a cold day. Thanks for the wonderful trip down memory lane.

  5. Ah, well, despite being foiled in your attempts to breach the baize door, you did manage to capture some excellent views of the 1950s green kitchen and 1950s pink mistress's bath. And you did insinuate your camera into that coy floral ladies' loo off the main entrance! Bravo!

    The view of the butler in tails captures the essence of the era...

  6. This has to be the funniest piece you've ever written! I couldn't stop laughing at Mrs. Post's marriage mistakes, the destruction of a beautiful home, the gay husband (figures) and the tacky interior. PS I love the 1950 interiors!

  7. That's a whole lotta Froufrou!

    -Emily, Down river

  8. I love old houses but I feel kind of sorry for this one. Yes, she had money, collected SOME very good things, but overall, what she did to this house lacks taste, comfort, elegance..its a fragmented jumble, jarring, uncomfortable. I'm glad you showed it though. The best part was the kitchen and I love the photo of the butler. Nothing about the outside prepares one for the inside. To me, it looks like she tried to make this house be something it could not be. It seems to want American antiques, colonial, New England, etc... Wow, what a number she did on this poor house but at least it is well kept and not falling to ruin and some of her collections are very interesting - some are not. Very odd. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  9. I still can't quite believe that a Faberge egg sold at a Parke-Bernet auction in New York in 1964 for $2450, only to be bought for scrap at a Midwest flea market a few years ago for $14,000. Marjorie spent more than that on flowers I'm sure.

    1. That same ''scrap metal'' egg later sold in London for $32 million dollars. It is now in the hands of an anonymous buyer.

  10. Thanks for a wonderful background and tour. I too wish you could have seen more. I could skip the fancy rooms and go straight to the attic, servants' quarters, and basement. And the adjacent heating plant in some older houses.

    1. You got to see all the best areas! The 3rd floor and 2nd fl back stairs are all offices now.

  11. thrilled to report that i have the identical pink toilet!
    not thrilled to report that after the toilet, the similarities
    between our homes cease to exist. oh well....

    1. I know how you feel Norma. Oh, BTW, I have a similar wall clock as the one we see in the butler's pantry. It was nice meeting you on the tour.

  12. Helen Blodgett GaillardMay 24, 2021 at 3:28 PM

    Mrs Helen Peck Blodgett Erwin was my Great Aunt. She sold Arbremont to Mrs Post after she became a widow. The original house WAS NOT a tear down. My mother, who spent time at Arbremont, said that Mrs Post did extensive remodeling. My Great Aunt put in the formal garden also. I was not born yet, but my 2nd cousins, Helen's grandchildren, remember many family gatherings there. She has one child still alive in CA and many grandchildren and Great grandchildren from her two daughters. My grandmother was her sister.

  13. Arbremont was my Great Aunt Helen's house. It WAS NOT a tear-down in any way. I have read this statement in a number of articles about Hillwood and it is not true. My cousins and older siblings remember many holiday celebrations there before she sold it to Mrs Post.
    Mrs Post bought a beautiful house in good condition and chose to do extensive remodeling of it.
    The base of the formal gardens were already put in by my Aunt and Mrs Post expanded on them.
    My Great Grandmother Daisy Peck Blodgett gave her two daughters property and houses to be built as wedding presents, at either end of Rock Creek Park. My Grandparents house is The Rocks now owned by Sen. Jay Rockefeller and his wife Sharon.