by Alex Y. Vergara
America’s capital is known the world over for its string of free museums, monuments, and memorials that celebrate peace, freedom, human rights, and various other democratic ideals. But there are more in store for lovers of culture and history should they venture just a few kilometers outside the city center.
For over 200 years now, Washington D.C. has been attracting prominent and wealthy families within and outside the United States to settle in the city. Whether because of its “central” location, which is within driving distance to other big cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York, or the proximity to the seat of power it allows its residents, the city didn’t lack for interesting, accomplished, and colorful inhabitants through the decades.
CLASSIC BEAUTY Hillwood mansion gives visitors access to the late Marjorie Merriweather Post’s extensive collection of French art, as well as Russian art
The Tudor Place’s north garden and its manicured state (Photo by Ron Blunt)
The stately facade of Tudor Place is teeming by neoclassical Greek lines
The Heurich House Museum teems with faux Victorian touches
One of several gardens in the Hillwood estate
The Tudor Place’s signature circular Temple Portico detail (Photo by Bruce M. White)
The Tudor Place’s drawing room, one of 15 rooms in the house with period pieces (Photo by Bruce M. White)
Hillwood mansion’s dining room
As is often the case, these residents have left behind fabulous homes, many with sprawling gardens, which they or their heirs later bequeathed to the city.
In keeping with its end of the bargain, the city protects and maintains some of these heritage structures, including their period furniture and art pieces as well as everyday household and office implements, while opening their doors to the public as museums run by professionals.
Although open to the public, some museums and heritage sites, on the other hand, are still privately owned and managed by the deceased owners’ respective estates.
The Tudor Place, Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, and Heurich House Museum, which we were fortunate enough to visit last June while covering the 2017 International Pow Wow (IPW), a five-day annual gathering held in various American cities of travel-related industries, local and foreign travel agents, buyers, and journalists, are three of the finest examples of must-visit homes-turned-heritage sites within the Washington D.C. area.
Built in 1805 by Martha Peter (one of George Washington’s step grandchildren) and husband Thomas, the Tudor Place is the oldest of the three structures and was noteworthy during its heyday for its size (15 rooms), floor plan, garden, and outbuildings.
Inspired by classical Greek lines and an ideal example of American neoclassical design, the house passed from owner to owner through the couple’s descendants until 1983. All told, said Mandy Katz, the Tudor Place’s communications director, six generations of Peters once lived in the property during various decades.
It was also a time when the young nation wanted to be taken seriously by the world, and this aspiration trickled down to its architecture, which drew inspirations from various influences. The house’s columned Temple Portico, rendered round instead of straight, is the “height of that impulse,” said Katz.
This architectural flourish is also one of Tudor Place’s focal points. Its name, by the way, has nothing to do with the Tudors of England. It seems no one alive today knows how the estate got its name.
The architect responsible for distilling these influences and giving them their own unique American flavor was Dr. William Thornton, a friend of Washington’s and an early American “starchitect”—the I.M. Pei and Zaha Hadid of his time—who, apart from designing the Tudor Place, also designed the original Capitol building, which burned down in 1814, and several notable mansions in the Washington D.C. area.
“Tudor Place stands out for its authenticity and state of preservation,” said Katz. “Its original architectural lines are intact, which is rare in a place like the US where the new so often supplants the old and storied.”
Katz could have been talking about the Philippines where almost anything old and teeming with historical and cultural significance is deemed irrelevant and demolished to give way to “modern” 21st-century structures.That’s a subject worth exploring some other day.
“The Peters were devoted to their land and made active use of it for production in the early days and later for decoration and recreation,” Katz continued.“They experimented with plant varieties and carefully noted what was planted and built where, when, so the landscape—large for an urban home at 5.5 acres (2.23 hectares)—also contains a multitude of historical references and touch points, not to mention actual heritage plant varieties.”
Although the house has presumably undergone a number of restorations, nothing fake, contemporary, or simply used just for show is displayed at Tudor Place. Everything you see—from furniture to art pieces, from books to documents, from accent pieces to everyday implements—is made, commissioned, inherited, or purchased at different times by those who owned and lived in the house.
Although George and Martha Washington didn’t live there, a humble metal basin belonging to them remains intact among the countless items found today at Tudor Place. So is a Polaroid photo of the last owner taken in 1970.
“This kind of timespan and completeness in an American collection is rare,” said Katz. “Thanks to the family’s scrupulous records, noting household and object information not in just diaries but correspondence, receipts, and labels, we are able to share rich information about the collection, house, and garden and how their uses changed over time.”
In contrast, both Heurich House and Hillwood were erected much later when standards in building a “mansion” had changed.
Owned by the late socialite, philanthropist, and divorcée Marjorie Merriweather Post, only child of Ella Merriweather and Charles William Post, and sole heiress to the Post cereal industry fortune, Hillwood mansion is noteworthy for two elements: Post’s extensive collection of French and Russian art, including a number of priceless Fabergé eggs, and the sprawling grounds’ themed gardens, including a Japanese garden, rose garden, and pet cemetery featuring limestone poodles, spaniels, and hounds with baskets of flowers.
Post started seriously collecting French decorative arts in 1919 after her divorce from her first husband Edward Bennett Close. She was introduced much later to Russian imperial art when she lived in Moscow for two years as an ambassador’s wife in the late 1930s.
When her marriage to Ambassador Joseph Davies ended in 1955, she bought Hillwood, a 25-acre estate in Washington D.C. She didn’t immediately live at Hillwood since the mansion that accompanied the estate underwent a major renovation.
Even then, Post had already envisioned the place to double as a museum for her priceless collection of art pieces. She asked designers and builders, for instance, to incorporate built-in shelves and lighted display cases in almost every room.
No matter how impressive the mansion is, it can’t hold a candle to the mistress of the house’s impressive art collection, which also includes murals and paintings of 19th-century Russian aristocratic life.
By 1958, Post married her third husband, Herbert May. Six years later, they were divorced. She again reverted to her maiden name Marjorie Merriweather Post. She lived in Hillwood until her death in 1973. In those years, Post hosted regular parties where Washington D.C.’s who’s who were invited. It also gave her an ideal excuse to show them her “babies.” Such was her pride in her extensive art collection that, in her final act of philanthropy, she opened her estate to the public as a museum.
If Post was born with a silver spoon, Christian Heurich is a classic example of the American success story. Orphaned at 14 in his native Germany, Heurich later sailed to America to start life anew and seek his fortune.
While still in Germany, he apprenticed for several years in a brewery. His training there became useful when he found himself later nestled in Washington D.C.’s German community. With his meager savings, he bought an old brewery within the city borders and soon turned its operations around.
In due time, Heurich became very successful. He had a neo-Victorian house built a few meters away from his brewery where he and his new wife moved in during the dying days of the 19th century. Unfortunately, his first wife who actively participated in the house’s design and construction died within less than a year.
Since Heurich’s first wife was also of German descent. She had the house designed to look like a mini German castle in the middle of a modern American city. It was supposed to be the couple’s stage, as they worked their way up Washington D.C.’s high society.
Alas, her dreams of becoming one of the leading hostesses and society doyennes in the US capital died with her. Heurich’s second wife, also a German immigrant, whom he married soon after, had no such ambitions, content as she was in raising a family in a dim, massive, and arguably masculine-looking house dreamed of by her predecessor.
It features impressive but faux Victorian flourishes, from fake fireplaces (most big houses already had central heating in the 1900s) to an antique-looking but otherwise brand new body armor as well as supposedly vintage Victorian furniture pieces that have one element that readily gives them away. Instead of claw feet, some of the padded furniture pieces double as rocking chairs, a feature unheard of in the Victorian design template.
Heurich might have been the leading brewer in the Washington D.C. area, but his descendants were either incapable or uninterested in competing with upstarts in adjacent states and the Midwest. By then, beer had also lost much of its appeal to other drinks and spirits.
Even before Heurich died, he had already sold his brewery. He left behind the house he built, which his descendants later turned into a museum. Also dubbed as the Brewmaster’s Castle, it serves as a constant reminder of their forebear’s grit and determination to buck the tide, reinvent himself, grow rich in a strange foreign land.
Delta Airlines, one of this year’s sponsors of IPW 2017, flies daily from Manila to Washington D.C. (and vice versa) via Narita and Detroit, or Narita and Atlanta.
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