Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Big Old Houses: All That Glitters

Big Old Houses: All That Glitters
by John Foreman


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.

Mrs. Davies.
The newly dubbed Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post.
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, its 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 www.hillwoodmuseum.org.
Floor plans and vintage views of Arbremont courtesy Hillwood Museum.
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