How They Lived

D.C.’s ‘Downton Abbey’ Mansion: Living Artfully at The Hillwood Estate

In a new exhibit, The Hillwood Estate offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of its richest owner.

Hillwood Museum & Gardens

Always dreamt of visiting a European estate but can’t afford the flight? For Americans, there’s a solution closer to home.

The Hillwood Estate and its new exhibition Living Artfully: at Home with Marjorie Merriweather Post, gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how the insanely wealthy lived in the Mad Men era.

Nestled within the leafy confines of Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, the estate was the home of Post, the heiress to the substantial Post Cereals fortune which made her the richest woman in the world during her lifetime. She was an avid collector, and the range of art and precious objects she left behind at Hillwood is sure to whet the appetite of every sort of tourist, from those interested in Imperial Russian art and French porcelain, to those who want to see her fine jewelry collection and walk the Japanese gardens.

Aside from a natural desire to avoid being trampled on the popular National Mall, one of the main reasons to visit the estate over the coming months is to see Living Artfully, which runs from June 8 to January 12.

The exhibit has transformed the mansion into a showcase of Post’s glamorous day-to-day life during her heyday, and the behind-the-scenes work that made it all happen. Guests can view one of the multiple bomb shelters she built on the property, see her sumptuous private movie theater, and discover some of the small details that we all secretly crave when getting an intimate look into the lives of the rich and famous. Some of these details include her unfortunate obsession with First Lady Pink, the books she kept in her personal library (Yoga for Today, The Entertaining Lady), her customized limo with a raised roof which she purchased to accommodate her tall hats, the $1 checks the government paid her during WWII for loaning them her yacht Sea Cloud (then the largest in the world), and the telltale signs of her vast staff, which could reach up to 300 people during one year.

But the best reason to visit Hillwood at any time is Post’s nearly unparalleled art collection. The estate houses the largest assortment of Imperial Russian art outside of Russia. Walking through the halls, terrifying portraits of Russian nobility watch as one gawks at display upon display of gaudy chalices, diamond encrusted crowns, and spine-tinglingly beautiful works from the House of Fabergé. For those of the Francophile persuasion, there are also display cases galore of Sèvres porcelain and Beauvais tapestries in the French drawing room.

But perhaps the item that stands out the most is the hard stone table rescued from Post’s Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago, which is now owned by Donald Trump. The piece, which Post considered the most important item she owned, was designed by Joseph Urban and built by the Società Civile, Arte del Mosaico in Florence. The intricate, rich patterns of the stones are almost worth the visit alone, and, according to one tour guide, has stopped every visitor who viewed it in his or her tracks.

The final envy-inducing part of the collection is Post’s jewelry. While most of her jewels now make up a significant portion of the Smithsonian’s collection, the set that remains at The Hillwood Estate is the likes of which normally adorn Hollywood starlets on the red carpet—displayed here in Post’s closet above her custom Bob, Inc. shoes.

On a hot summer day or a picturesque fall afternoon, the sloping lawns, beautiful Japanese garden, and French parterre grounds at Hillwood provide the ideal setting for an escape into the past that won’t break the bank. Just a short walk from the metro, this hidden gem is well worth an addition to the itinerary.