Saturday, July 30, 2011

GPS Museum Roulette Hits at Hillwood

My new hobby is GPS roulette -- choose a place, spin the wheel, see if you win!

An option in my Garmin GPS will generate a list of attractions (parks, museums, etc) based on how far away they are from my current position. It's handy when traveling, and so through this method, I found a lovely park by a river in Westbrook, Maine, with a railroad bridge and kids swinging on ropes into the river on a hot day.  

River swimming
Railroad repetition

I like the random yet planned aspect of discovery, driving with a destination, but one unexplored and unresearched and open to change at any moment, planned serendipity. 

Back home in DC, on a day where freelance ran thin and I couldn't face crafting one more heartfelt cover letter, I decided to spin the GPS and driving wheel and see what I could find in my hometown.

First stop: National Museum of Health and Medicine in Walter Reed. Surely some creepy skeletons or jars of formaldehyde would perk up a dull day. 

No luck. It was closed.

I actually didn't find that out until I checked the website. The museum is in transition, moving to Silver Spring. I was simply scared off by the many gates with somber looking young men, and thought better of my first choice. I do plan to visit in the fall when it's in a less high security environment.

After another perusal of the GPS list, I decided to place my bet on a new stop: the Squished Penny Museum! It was hard not to be intrigued by the name, and so worth a few miles journey. 

No luck. It too was closed.

There was a tidy row house at that address, but no sign of any museum. I opted not to take a photograph, as that seemed creepy if it was now simply a private home.

True, it's not completely surprising that a museum dedicated to flattened souvenir pennies didn't last forever.  But the good news is, its stories and wares are still documented on the Internet if you click on through the sad news of their closing to the archived site.

On my next spin, I decided to improve the odds a bit, and select not just something from the list that seemed interesting, but would have likely survived the several years since I got my Garmin maps (and have been too cheap to update). 

The Historical Society of Washington, DC, with a location right across the street from the Convention Center, was sure to have traffic, I thought, and given the subject, likely to have government funding. 

I was greeted with the following sign:

Times are tough all around.
Yes, once again: No luck. It was closed.  So much for the third time being a charm.

The website notes financial difficulties. They hope to open again. 

Note: do not go down to the lower level to try to peek through the windows.  It's smells overpoweringly of urine.  Repeat: avoid at all costs the lower level entrance. 

Given that I was hot and tired and slightly overcome by bad smells, I tried to go into the Convention Center to cool off and see what it looks like inside, but after a nice chat with a security guard (who was surprised to hear that the Historical Society had shut down), I learned that the Convention Center wasn't open to the public during events. 

Well, fine. Some days all doors are closed.   

I did see this written in the sidewalk on a corner near there, which made me laugh:

Obsessive Compulsive Summer 2010
(perhaps the modern version of the Summer of Love)
I did not stop scanning the GPS list. Yes, I am just that stubborn.   

And finally, a win!

Closer to my own home, I finally found a museum open and ready for business: Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens.  According to its signs, it is Where Fabulous Lives.

Chandelier originally owned
by Catherine the Great
The large estate is tucked away off Beech Drive near Rock Creek Park.  While I grew up in DC, and know of Merriweather Post from the name of the Pavilion, I didn't know that Marjorie Merriweather Post entertained in the fancy mansion during the spring and fall months from the 1955 purchase of the house (after her third divorce, from United States Ambassador to Russia Joseph E. Davies) until her death in 1973. 

As a result of her will, the house was transformed into a museum.  An army of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers work as dedicated docents serving, if the afternoon I was there was an indication, a clientele heavy on middle to upper class aging white women. By comparison, I was a whippersnapper and, despite my (in my opinion) fabulous thrift store skirt and with noisy flip-flops, underdressed. 

The house has a heavy focus on French furniture and Russian art. Two Faberge eggs and a chandelier owned by Catherine the Great were lovely, but I confess, the unruly serf in me became slightly soured by the level of opulence in the big manor house.

This is not to say that Merriweather Post didn't engage in philanthropic work and give back to the community. She is routinely described as extravagant, but generous.

Dining Room
Beyond turning her fancy house into a museum, wikipedia notes that "Her donation of funds to construct field hospitals in France during World War I was recognized by the French government awarding her the Legion of Honor."

During her life, she also contributed heavily to arts organizations, including the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center. 

Further wikipedia reading, however, suggests that some of her Russian art, in particular, was acquired under questionable circumstances: "It was later alleged that many works of art from the State Tretyakov and other collections were either donated or offered at nominal prices to Post and her then-husband Joseph E Davies, who were both art collectors. Davies is also alleged to have purchased art expropriated from Soviet citizens well after the Russian Revolution, including victims of Stalin's Terror at discount prices from Soviet authorities." 
Portraits of Russian Royals

Most of her life reads like a soap opera, once you give even a cursory glance beyond the brochure information. Largely, Marjorie Merriweather Post was famous for being very, very rich and for marrying, and divorcing four men in a time when that just wasn't done. While she was also a shrewd businesswoman, and one of the first women to sit on the board of a corporation, the salacious details tend to attract more attention. 

Multiple marriages abounded.  Her father divorced her mother and then married his 27 year old secretary. After continuing health problems, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot. Marjorie Merriweather Post divorced one of her four spouses for infidelities so indiscreet they apparently couldn't be monied over and another for rumors of homosexuality. Her three daughters each went on to marry at least three men apiece. Swimming in money did not make for peaceful personal relationships.   

Now a large endowment funds the private museum, and some truly lovely treasures are available, for a small fee, for folks like me to ogle and admire and, in my case, silently give thanks that I won't ever feel the need to own that much china, no matter how lovely Sèvres is, no matter how rich I ever become.

I bet time, not money, on my GPS roulette day, and won in ways of exploration and experience that make me feel rich. 

That said, I'm fairly certain no one will be turning my apartment into a museum in the event of my untimely death.  Unless I start collecting a LOT of squished pennies.


  1. I missed this one somehow. The squished penny museum - my nirvana!

    1. Alas, it is no more (the museum - I'm sure nirvana is just fine).

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