Thursday, July 31, 2014

Girls' Day Out

I went with a couple of friends today to visit Hillwood Mansion, the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post which is now a museum. Heiress to the cereal fortune and a shrewd business woman in her own right, Post was famous for her entertaining and her collections of Russian Imperial art and French decorative art. Hillwood, just one of her many properties, represented the perfect intersection of these pursuits.

Married and divorced four times, Post was by all accounts an independent woman who signed an agreement with the Smithsonian turning over the entire estate upon her death. In many ways the property was renovated, landscaped, and improved during her lifetime with this ultimate use in mind. There are many gardens, a greenhouse with thousands of orchids, and the house is still full of antique furniture, paintings, tapestry, porcelain, crystal, silver, jewels, and clothing. Our complimentary one-hour tour took 90 minutes, the guide admitting that we would see a small fraction of what the place had to offer.

Before the tour, as we stood in the grand entry hall beneath the rock crystal chandelier, I fiddled with my bright yellow entry tag, Fabulous! it read, and looked around at our fellow guests. Many had joined us from the short tour we had just taken of the cutting garden. Of the thirty-five or so people waiting among the portraits of Russian royalty, there were perhaps 5 younger than 40, and there were no more than a handful of men. All the tour guides were women over 60. I thought back to the visitor center-- all the folks there were also women. This sure is a hot spot for middle-aged ladies, I laughed to myself.

After Marjorie Post's death in 1973, Hillwood was taken over by the Smithsonian, just as she'd arranged, but in two year's time the impossible logistics of running such a property away from the National Mall became apparent, and ownership of the estate reverted back to her family, who was not caught unprepared. Post had left a 10 million dollar contingency plan in her will to convert Hillwood to a private, non-profit museum should the need arise. Today the estate is run by a board of trustees with the mission to delight and engage visitors with an experience inspired by the life of founder Marjorie Merriweather Post and her passion for excellence, gracious hospitality, art, history, and gardens.

A quick glance at the list of key staff running Hillwood reveals that the majority are women, as are 12 of the 17 trustees on the board. They cite their mandate as continuing Mrs. Post’s legacy by sharing the contributions she made in the fields of American business leadership; women’s studies; progressive thought; political history; philanthropy; community and social involvement; healthy lifestyles; Russian imperial art; French decorative arts; costume, jewelry and textile design and estate and garden design.

Fabulous! indeed.

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