Kelsey Nowakowski

Elegance, Eccentricities Abound at Hillwood Estate Gardens

Nestled in the hills of Washington, D.C.’s northwest quadrant, Hillwood Estate’s whimsical grandeur will delight visitors along every turn of its winding, well-manicured paths. The former estate of the heirless to the Post breakfast-cereal fortune and founder of the General Foods empire, Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post spent her copious riches on decking out her gardens with the most interesting of eccentricities–a dacha, or Russian summer home, Adirondack house, pet cemetery, and Japanese garden, to name a few.

Teetering on the verge of kitsch, the estate makes for a curious cultural mashup with a Georgian-styled mansion at the centerpiece. Built in 1926 as the Arbremont estate, Mrs. Post purchased the the home nearly 30 years later and renamed it Hillwood, in honor of her former country estate on Long Island. Mrs. Post filled her estate with cultural relics from around the world, an expanse stretching from France to Russia to Japan and beyond.

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The crown-jewel of the backyard is a Japanese lily garden, carved with precision into the gently sloping landscape. Narrow stone staircases and multi-tiered ponds connect this garden, each level full of Japanese motifs and statues that were carefully placed to accentuate the thoughtful, cultivated views. Just beyond the garden lies Rock Creek Park, a wild backdrop of lush greenery. Even the ivy that snakes through through estate is refined enough to deserve a plaque–it’s an original clipping from England’s esteemed Buckingham Palace. Ivy also covers the forest floor of the somber pet cemetery where Mrs. Post laid to rest many dogs like her beloved Scampi, Coco, and Lady Margaret.

Hillwood’s greenhouses, meanwhile, are home to more than two thousand orchids and other ornamental plants that are used for decorating the mansion’s many rooms. Hanging orchids and ornamental moss abound in the large greenhouse, many of whose plants are exotic species from the most remote reaches of the world. During Mrs. Post’s tenure the adjacent cutting garden provided the the home with continuous fresh bouquets, filled with flowers like snapdragons, sunflowers, and the less common ‘love lies bleeding’ blossoms. Alongside her home, the heiress held lavish parties in her French Parterre, a small formal garden with ornately-sculpted, low-lying plants all of which are enclosed by English ivy walls. Elsewhere, the garden’s geometric shapes, stone footpaths, and cherub sculptures echo classical French garden design.

Built to transport guests to faraway places, the dacha and Adirondack house were designed with culturally-specific architecture in mind. Mrs. Post had the dacha constructed in 1969 with Russian-styled designs like plume-shaped domes that are carved into its California Redwood exterior. The Adirondack house was built to display the many Native American artifacts that Mrs. Post once used to decorate her summer estate in Upstate New York, which today are housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Now used for special exhibits, the cabin displays Mrs. Post’s beautiful dresses and shoes, many of which incorporate gorgeous floral designs likely inspired by her own backyard. (As a style icon of her time, she graced the pages of Vogue in 1957.)

In her Time magazine memorial, Mrs. Post is said to have “lived as queens once were wont to do and now seldom can afford….with her death a gilt-edged volume of American history came to an end.” Fortunately, today garden enthusiasts can visit Marjorie Post’s now-preserved estate, replete with it’s fanciful eccentricities and a timeless beauty that endures for all to see.

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