Now is the best time to visit the Hillwood Estate and museum here in Washington, DC. And as a DC native, I’ve got some tips to help you spend the day feeling like you’re floating around Downton Abbey… but in a real American great house.
So let me use my posh Julia Child voice, “Now that the last breathy gasps of summer are upon us and Washington, DC has tempered a bit, some overcast weather and temperatures just slightly beneath 85 degrees make it possible to enjoy the many lovely and historical estate houses in the area.”
And none is more fabulous, even more magical, than the Hillwood Estate in northwest DC. Walk through a ‘theater of history’ of Hillwood and explore Russian and French furniture, even royal artifacts, stroll around the soothing gardens, have tea and sandwiches, enjoy the Spectacular jewelry exhibition, rare orchids in the greenhouse, and have fun perusing super-fancy kitsch in the gift shop.
What should you do at Hillwood?
I’m a DC native, and according to my mother, I first went to Hillwood in the 80s, when I was a baby (a very posh baby, apparently). As an adult (now, I’m more geek-chic), I’ve been to Hillwood three times since. So, I can tell you, confidently, that this is a very special place that will not leave you unsatisfied. Likely, you’ll leave sure that you need to come back to Hillwood and look at something you were dazzled with but couldn’t get around to because you were so busy being dazzled by everything else.
If you’re not a morning person, I recommend arriving around between 1 p.m.-noon. If you time things just right, you’ll be able to do things in the following order: the introductory film; a guided tour; tea and a walk around the gardens before you hit the gift shop. Ask when the guided tour and film begin at the Visitor’s Center when you arrive. And get ready to put that awesome little ‘fabulous!’ badge in just the right place on your shirt…
My mother and I saw the Hillwood introduction film that helps you place Marjorie Merriweather Post in recent history as the sole heiress to the Post fortune (think Grape Nuts cereal) who traveled around the world, was presented at the English court (yes, you read that right—just like Lady Rose on Downton Abbey), became a superior collector of rare French and Russian pieces and purchased the Hillwood Estate with the intention of cultivating it into a museum after her death. I can’t not say this—the effort and success she achieved is rather a lot like a pharaoh, like Cleopatra herself, building her pyramid her whole live through.
Our Guided Tour
The film and our tour guide (definitely get a guided tour if you can) helped impress upon us that Post was a great celebrity in the early 1900s, the richest woman in America during that time. So imagine a Kim Kardashian or Angelina Jolie type of celebrity, wandering all over the world collecting art, the paparazzi documenting her every move, every husband she marries, and all the best people coming to her home to see her desk once owned by a German princess, Marie Antoinette’s own brown leather swiveling dressing chair, a diamond-and-ruby-studded pocket watch belonging to Catherine the Great, czarina of Russia… And Post’s excellent taste in jewelry inspired styles later worn by other high society women, including Princess Diana herself. (This was a sparkling bracelet, part of the Spectacular! Exhibition of jewelry that’s been advertised all over DC this summer.) This is the legendary experience you do not want to miss at Hillwood.
Hillwood is the penultimate experience for anyone who likes shows like Downton Abbey or even wolfing down juicy historical articles on Wikipedia. I got into this funny habit lately of reading about the scandalous romantic lives of historical figures (you know, pull a name out the hat, like Mozart, and skip down to the ‘marriage’ or ‘life’ section of the Wikipedia article, and ontop of that, click on the names of all the people they have their affairs with—highly recommended), so I really enjoyed hearing about how strange Peter the Great was, and Catherine’s coup to throw him over when she was absolutely done with their ‘ghastly’ marriage… her lover helped, and then she went on to have, I think, eleven more lovers… and there a lot of great juicy stories inside of Hillwood, tied to the pieces Post chose to have in her collection. It is said to be a very feminine collection—furniture, dinner services—in that these are objects to enjoy close up and be adored for their details. Hillwood evokes a warm feeling, it is a home after all. It certainly does not have the feel of a cold museum.