Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens Celebrates the Roaring Twenties

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens is located in the city near Rock Creek Park but feels worlds away. Guests will find a beautiful mansion and sprawling gardens once owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post. Right now, Hillwood is celebrating the twenties with a special exhibit: Roaring Twenties: The Life and Style of Marjorie Merriweather Post. 

Post was a prominent figure in the worlds of art, fashion, and business. After her parents died in the 1910s, she became the owner of the $20 million cereal company that would later become the General Foods Corporation. She was only 27. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens was not only her home but a place where she entertained and showcased her growing art collection. 

The 1920’s brought great change to Post’s life as she embraced her role as the owner of Postum Cereal Company, spent much of time at her Manhattan apartment, and began serious art collecting. While she attended many lavish parties, she was also a strong supporter of many philanthropic causes. 

I got a special sneak peek of the exhibit and a chance to chat with curator, Megan Martinelli. Megan join Hillwood in January 2018 and was previously with The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Insitute. We discussed her favorite piece in the exhibit and how she wanted to present this era of Post’s life 100 years later. 

Interview with Hillwood Curator Megan Martinelli

1920's fashion seems inspired by so many different influences that I don't think I fully appreciated! What is your favorite piece in the collection? 

Megan: The cream and blue ombré tiered gown by Madame Frances (48.66) is one of my favorites.

When I began at Hillwood in 2018, I conducted an assessment of all our 1920s pieces, aware of this future project, and discovered that this gown was in poor condition and was never before exhibited. It is strikingly modern with the color gradient in the skirt and combines the robe de style silhouette of the 1920s (a favorite style of Marjorie Post—characterized by a low-slung, full skirt, drawing inspiration from the formal court dresses of the 18th-century) with the low back neckline that would rise to popularity during the early 1930s.

We sent the gown for conservation in late 2019. The silk tulle tiers had become brittle and fragile with age. These were humidified and stabilized for display by our conservator.

Meanwhile, I conducted research of historic publications from the 1920s and discovered that Marjorie Post and her daughters were leaders in the American fashion press of the decade—especially Women’s Wear Daily. I came across an illustration of Post wearing this particular gown in a December 1929 article of the publication. Previously, we had no visual or anecdotal documentation of the circumstances for which she wore this particular piece.

I learned that Post wore the gown to her friends’ lavish debutante ball (the Thaw family—of Pennsylvania banking and transportation) in 1929 at the Ritz Carlton in New York. We were so inspired by this discovery that the sketch inspired the graphic identity for the exhibition! This story of discovery, conservation, and further context was a great highlight of this project.

I really enjoyed how the exhibit captured both the prosperity of the decade but also the hardships many Americans were still facing. Those same themes feel relevant 100 years later. Did any parallel between then and now stick out to you specifically while putting this collection together?

Megan: This is definitely a challenge for me as a curator when telling Post’s story. It was really important for me to acknowledge that the lifestyle represented in the exhibition is one of a white woman who was among the richest in the country and knew nothing first hand from her adolescence on (when her father’s cereal empire gained traction) of the challenges most Americans faced during the period.

With this in mind, it continues to be a trial for me to include diversity and stories of those who were not economically thriving during the 1920s and onwards in the century. It is inaccurate and a disservice to history to imply that individuals like Post did not come from an enormous position of privilege, but she did undertake philanthropic causes during her life, establishing food canteens during the Great Depression and raising funds for hospitals in low-income areas.

Moreover, the printed map of Manhattan I include at the center of the exhibition tells the story of numerous self-made immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century who successfully established small dressmaking or import-customs shops in the city. As we enter our own Roaring Twenties, from the challenge of 2020, I hope that these stories inspire optimism for the future and inspire others to support small businesses and encourage creativity in their communities.

Even though the exhibit focuses on the 20s, I felt like it still captured who Marjorie Merriweather Post was throughout her long life. What was it like jfocusing on one decade?

Megan: Focusing on one decade was a special treat. In 1920, Post was 33 years old, a mother of two, recently divorced, and the largest shareholder of her father’s company.

During this period, she was the most experimental in her fashion choices and became a very serious collector of fine jewelry and decorative arts. I really appreciated the sparks of independence and freedom she embraced in the decade, choosing her own group of friends and way of entertaining, making her own considered financial choices, and embracing philanthropy.

Over the remaining decades of her life, she would grow and develop on these themes, but it was really the ‘20s that saw her coming into her own.

Sample Dresses from the Exhibit

Left: “Midnight” Costume, 1926. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, acc. no. 48.138.1-5. Photographed by Edward Owen. Marjorie Post wore this costume twice, including at the Everglades Ball in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1926.

Right: Evening Ensemble, Mme. Frances, Inc., 1927. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, acc. no. 48.50.1-3. Photographed by Edward Owen. (Marjorie Post wore this dress for Eleanor’s debut at the Ritz Carlton.

During Your Visit

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens features a number of beautiful gardens so be sure to explore while you are there. I visited on a particularly humid evening but the gardens were vibrant and enjoyable to explore. I’m looking forward to visiting in other seasons to see how the gardens change. Guests can even check the website ahead of time to see what is currently blooming. Don’t miss the rose garden, Japanese-style garden, and the French Parterre. There is also a somber but very lovely dog cemetery to honor the beloved pups who enjoyed these grounds. 

The gardens are connected by small paths and feel generally private. Even though the gardens span 25 acres, it feels like you are truly enjoying someone’s backyard.

Pictured: the Japanese Gardens and the Rose Garden (photos taken by me). 

Enjoy a full afternoon at Hillwood with snacks from the cafe. Find drinks, salads, sandwiches, and sweets from 11 am to 4 pm with covered and uncovered outdoor seating. 

The Roaring Twenties will be on display through January 9, 2022. Hillwood is open Tuesday from Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are a suggested donation of $18/adults, $15/seniors, $10/college students, and $5/children 6-18. Members can visit for free. 

At a Glance

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