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Here’s Hillwood A Public Garden

If you’re in the mood to step back in time and visit one of our area’s many amazing locations, please consider going to the Hillwood Estate: Museum & Gardens, the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post.  In 1914, when Marjorie Merriweather Post was only 27 years old, she became the sole heiress to the Post Cereal Company and one of the wealthiest women in America. Marjorie’s passion for the arts and access to a world of prominent social figures, serious art collectors, connections to Hollywood, key business leaders, political leaders and more is evident throughout Hillwood. It’s unlikely for someone to visit Hillwood and not become immersed in some aspect of her incredible life.

In 1955, after her divorce from her third husband (Joseph Davies, the second ambassador to Russia), Marjorie Merriweather Post bought Hillwood and renovated the estate, including the massive gardens, with a vision: the 2 year project would be a museum and home to astonishing art collections (specifically known for the Imperial Russian Collection and French decorative arts) and she designed formal garden in the landscape specifically to highlight mature specimens.

The mansion and gardens are wonderful year round and there’s so much to discover, it’s hard to know where to start. If you’re planning a visit, I strongly suggest looking through the website to become familiar and map out your visit – http://www.hillwoodmuseum.org. There’s a calendar with events, hours, entrance fees, exhibits and what’s in bloom (some of the art exhibits change and there are special events) and I highly recommend, from personal experience, making a reservation for their special tea offered only on Sundays – wonderful food, exceptional setting.

Last week, on a rare sunny day, I met two friends at Hillwood to celebrate one friend’s birthday and to finally get outside and enjoy Spring which has been making infrequent appearances during this month. Tired of being inside, our focus was on the gardens and after spending a few hours there, I still feel like there was so much to explore.  Here’s what we experienced and I can’t stress this enough – Hillwood is worth making time for and it’s the kind of place one wants to return to no matter what’s on display in the mansion nor what is in bloom in the gardens.

After parking the car and paying a small fee for admission, I walked to the “Motor Court” at Hillwood’s entrance. The Motor Court greeted guests at gates and was designed to allow people to drive around plantings to get an introduction to the Hillwood experience. A statute of Eros, the Greek god of love, welcomes visitors and it’s quite easy to imagine transportation stopping under the porte cochere (a covered drive) as the footmen scurried out of the house to escort guests indoors.  Chauffeurs would then take the cars and park them where they would be out of sight. Think PBS and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’ll be seeing at Hillwood.

Hillwood-Motor-CourtHillwood’s Motor Court 

My friends and I then decided to explore the Cutting Garden, made up of long, rectangular, very straight rows of flowers. This is the utilitarian part of the gardens as their purpose would be to decorate the mansion and other buildings on the estate with fresh cut flowers. The extensive Greenhouses are next to the cutting gardens and together, they provided more than enough natural decoration for the massive estate and buildings. The orchids in bloom in the Greenhouse were breathtaking.

cutting-garden-and-orchidsHillwood’s Cutting Gardens & Orchids from Greenhouse

Next to the cutting beds, in less structured rows but clearly defined planting beds, were tremendous blooms. The foxglove, peonies, catmint, heucheras  irises and more blooms were lush, colorful, fragrant and plentiful. It was beautiful – like looking at an impressionist painting.

gardens-in-bloomHillwood’s Gardens in Bloom

The Rose Garden, though not in full bloom during our visit in mid-May, is an important area on the estate. Marjorie Post had, in 1956, hired Perry Wheeler to adapt the garden to better suit her taste. Perry Wheeler had assisted with the White House’s Rose Garden design and although I’ve no basis for comparison, it was clear that Ms. Post, knowledgeable about so many topics, knew how to seek the best and use that talent and expertise to reflect her interests and preferences. Wheeler worked on Hillwood’s Rose Garden to achieve an intricate balance between each bed and as such, each bed is planted with one variety of a summer blooming floribunda. The Rose Garden also includes early blooming tulips (they were no longer in bloom when we visited), boxwood surrounds the pergola and as white roses climb the pergola in early spring, it is mixed with white wisteria.

rose-gardenHillwood’s Rose Garden

It was Hillwood’s Rose Garden where Marjorie selected to house her ashes. In the middle of the Rose Garden is a large monument with the Post family coat of arms, inscribed with the Latin phrase roughly translated as “All my hopes rest in me.” Many find this phrase only fitting for this intellectually curious, dynamic and self sufficient woman:

rose-garden-monumentMonument in Rose Garden with Marjorie Merriweather Post’s ashes.

Other areas I found particularly beautiful and fun to explore included the Pet Cemetery which welcomes visitors with limestone dogs (poodles, spaniels and hounds) at the entrance. The secluded site feels reverent and clearly shows how beloved Marjorie’s dogs where. Fragrant plants are carefully thought out and it’s a peaceful, beautifully fragrant and special area. I thought it only fitting to see dogtooth violets in bloom around the various graves:

dog-cemetaryHillwood’s Dog Cemetery

Other beautiful sites within the grounds include a secluded Japanese Style Garden with a small mountain landscape and paths following the water as it flows through the terrain, ending in a peaceful, lower pond. This garden includes many native plants alongside Japanese maple, pines and cedars. There are many Japanese sculptural elements, fountains and lanterns.  The turtle seemed pretty happy sunning itself on the rocks, too.

Japanese-gardenHillwood’s Japanese Garden

Here are a few other photographs taken from my recent visit to Hillwood (including the unusual Dacha House in a heavily wooded area, surrounded by rhododendrons and azaleas which was built in 1969 during the Cold War. The Dacha takes a nostalgic view of Russian culture and the bright colors used to paint window carvings and the roof’s dome typify Russian churches) – whether it be the carefully selected plantings, the design of each garden vignette, the materials and styles selected for lights and decorations, it’s clear that by visiting Hillwood’s gardens, you are treated to a spectacular sight and you might even learn a little history. No matter what your reason(s) for visiting Hillwood, please consider visiting this, and the many other natural treasures our area offers, in every season as they change as quickly as the weather.


by Emily Stashower, Behnkes Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. What a beautiful place. A must for my bucket list. I fekt like I was on the tour with you. Enjoyed the history and the gardens

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