Garden Affluence in Another Era

Mansion of Marjorie Merriweather Post in D.C.

While here at GardenRant the hot topic was rich people’s gardens,  love ’em or hate ’em, I was strolling the garden of one of the super-rich – Marjorie  Merriweather Post (as in Post Cereals). Here’s the very grand mansion, named Hillwood, filled with Russian imperial art (including Fabergé Eggs) and other Old World goodies.  I’ve taken the mansion tour and my favorite parts were the private quarters – closets, baths, pantries.  Very Upstairs/Downstairs.

The similarly grand gardens – 13 acres of formal ones – are the work of prominent landscape architects Umberto Innocenti and Richard Webel in the 1950s.  they include such high-maintenance items as a  French Parterre and Rose Garden.   And of course the estate had its own greenhouse and cutting garden.  

Greenhouse facade.
Cutting garden.

All gorgeous, right?


Now putting greens aren’t gorgeous to me, but the website tells us it was just one of many amenities for healthy living that Post loved, including a pool, tennis courts, bridle path, stables, and dog kennels.   So in the spirit of Let’s Move! I can easily overlook a bit of intensively-managed turf.

Japanese-Style Garden.

Somehow the extravagance of this estate, like the extravagance of Versailles shown in Ivette’s post, doesn’t bother me.  In fact, I love that they’re preserved.

But today, with what we know about the environmental cost of extravagance and about Earth’s resources being limited, you’d have to be awfully clueless to try to duplicate Versailles.  Like the couple in the surprisingly good documentary Queen of Versailles.

As for the Post estate garden, it may be high-maintenance but there isn’t an outdoor kitchen in sight.  So to the super-affluent rich among you (anyone out there?) go ahead and recreate it; then invite me over.  (More photos here.)


  1. If it’s labor-intensive to maintain, it provides jobs.

    Resource intensive might be a problem – especially if the resources were water and pesticides.

  2. No outdoor kitchen? What is the world coming to?

    Oh, I see, it’s not in Southern Cal or coastal Florida…about the only places an outdoor kitchen make real sense 9 months of the year.

  3. It looks like an amazing garden to visit! I’m really pleased about this dialog, because I think how we allocate funds and resources is so important in our culture right now. But I am not “against” estate gardens- I am against money and resources being spent recklessly, egged on by advertisers and contractors wanting to make a buck. Glorious, inspirational estate gardens are part of what keeps my heart beating (Lotusland, in Santa Barbara, is my Mecca!) – but we can all, no matter what our economic bracket, choose to create sustainable gardens that work for us and our communities. A large garden can help employ many. Heritage estates and conservancy gardens are pieces of history, and often over- the- top spaces teach us about what the real cost of the gardens of the affluent are. Many of our wealthy estate owners hold land in trust and keep it safe from potential corporate interlopers- the Hearsts, for one, keep huge amounts of the California coastline off the table for developers. Currently, codes in California insure that when land is developed for non-native gardens, land is donated back to the state at a higher percentage, to be held as natural preserves. So there is a lot of good that can come out of the development of high end estate gardens.
    On the other hand, it is very easy for the middle class to get swept away by aspirational impulses because of the pressure put on all of us in our culture to “have it all”. I hope we all keep thinking about the best way to use our resources, even though we may have more discretionary income. I believe we can meet our needs and even our desires without being Gordon Gecko about everything! Thanks for the post, Susan- the garden looks lovely.

    • Yes. Ivette’s previous rant was more directed at ideas and images that may make us feel our own gardens and outdoor spaces aren’t quite enough. And it’s not estate gardens that are the culprit. “Marketing” is a now huge business enterprise itself, and it intentionally works to create consumer demand through such feelings. And when what’s being marketed is truly unnecessary to enjoying life outdoors – perhaps detrimental to getting closer to nature – it a perfect topic for ranting. So let’s push back, not against the personal predilections of the affluent, but against foolish “Stuff” being marketed to the middle class that make being outdoors in the backyard far too much like being indoors in the house.

  4. Also, the fact that these gardens are open to the public puts them in a completely different category. Sure, they were once private, but so many of these wealthy families (e.g. DuPont) also had a charitable streak and have done a lot of good for millions of people. There’s too much hating on rich folk.

    • This is off the garden topic, but since you mentioned “hating on the rich” I would like to remind readers about corporations such as Walgreen’s (in the news this week).

      “. . . the “pharmacy America trusts” is about to renounce its U.S. citizenship for tax purposes, moving its official headquarters to Switzerland.

      Walgreen’s would still depend on Americans to shop at its stores, on our roads and bridges, on our educated workforce, on our legal system and many other things that its taxes are supposed to help pay for. But we would lose $4 billion in tax revenue over the next five years.

      It gets worse. Walgreen’s also receives $17 billion per year from Medicare and Medicaid prescription sales, so one-fourth of its revenue comes from taxpayer-funded programs.”

      I don’t think it’s hating, Mary, but I do know there’s a rotten imbalance in this country. Sure there are some good rich folks, who do good works and leave us public land and gardens, but many of the mega-wealthy have been taking what they can, depleting our people of jobs, and sticking the middle class with their enormous tax-evading bills for decades.

      • Yeah off topic but…the imbalance is in the corporate tax structure here in the US. If we don’t want corporations to leave maybe we shouldn’t have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world.

          • To bring it back to the topic at hand… point is that the wealthy, in addition to leaving us libraries, hospitals, parks, etc., are also responsible for much of the world’s art and culture, period. Most of the West’s great art, architecture, music, etc., was either created or subsidized by the wealthy. When nations attempt to eliminate the wealthy class (e.g., the Soviet Union) you’ll notice not much art is created.

            I’ve seen a couple of commenters push an anti-consumer, anti-materialism mantra here, and I understand where this comes from (concern for the environment) but if we shut the door on “materialism” we are also shutting the door on a lot of what makes life worth living: beautiful art, gardens, architecture, etc. heck, even the world of ideas — philosophy, politics, ethics, etc. — requires wealth because when people are forced to spend their entire existence trying to hunt or gather food and/or survive they don’t have a lot of time left over for thinking.

            Anyway, some big issues here. Thanks for the discussion!

    • I don’t hate the rich, Mary. I’m just aware that I got to be rich by being born into a white, college educated family, by receiving a fine education at the tax payer’s expense and by being in the right place at the right time. I don’t hate the rich, but I also don’t think that I’m any better than someone less fortunate than I am. I don’t think that I should not be expected to pay back some of what I have be given by society. I don’t think that I deserve a bigger voice in politics than someone who has less than I do. So, no, I don’t hate the rich (some of my neighbors heart in the heart of Richistan, yes, I do hate, but that’s an individual thing….)

  5. I am fascinated by these estate garden houses. I always wonder when someone buys a property and installs gardens like the ones above will the kids and grandkids inherit and take care of the property or will they turn into something more like Grey Gardens or the Dungeness mansion on Cumberland Island

    Seems more likely that theses houses will be bulldozed and the property sub-divided. The estate gardens that survive today only do so because of donations and public viewings. They do seem to benan artifact of an era when labor (and inputs) were relatively cheaper. In 100 years or so will we be touring Bill Gates’s property, laughing at the ruins of his outdoor kitchen, and marveling back at this gilded age?

  6. Why let the starter home needing weekly mow, blow, go….n-p-k, irrigation, annual replaced 2x/year off the hook ?

    Multiplied in the millions they are a bigger problem to Earth than any of the clueless wealthy.

    The wealthy I work for are my most Earth sensitive clients.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    • Exactly, Tara–good point. The wealthy I work for are my most Earth sensitive clients, too. These have been such interesting posts–I’m loving the dialogue. Very thought-provoking, and I find I’m examining my own beliefs, too.


  7. I volunteer as a floral designer at an historic home near me, and it is staggering to think of the resources people in the Gilded Age had to create these places. On the other hand, I’m so glad that a lot of concerned citizens and volunteers have been able to keep this place up and open for all to enjoy. This place was built in the 1880’s, and we won’t see anything exactly like it ever again.

  8. Wealth, in and of itself, is not an automatically damning condition. It’s the relationship the wealthy have with their wealth. As a child growing up in Bayport, Long Island (the putative locational inspiration for the Hardy Boy Mysteries), me and my merry band of ragged siblings and cohorts had been romping through the reeds in the wetlands of the Great South Bay when one of us got sliced pretty badly on Phragmites and sought the assistance of the nearest house, a 40 room estate on the bay, also in the Post family. The elderly couple there (the Posts) invited us in, patched up our wounded, treated us to cocoa, and for the next several years gave us free run of the house and grounds, truly a museum, while they essentially hunkered down in the servants’ quarters of the place. There were suits of armor on display, civil war uniforms and other memorabilia, stereoscopes and sepia photos, nothing less than 100 years old at the time. They gave us but the gentlest instructions on handling things carefully, then left us on our own. There were secret passageways we were shown and left to explore, always unsupervised. There was a log playhouse on the grounds large enough to be a real home. And there was a boathouse that we turned into a performance space for no one but our own audience of usually fewer than ten kids, while we belted out current show tunes and attempted clumsy dance licks.
    And while it was clearly magical in hindsight, those were simply our summer days in the moment, and I am so grateful for the Posts’ generosity with what they, through no particular effort on their part, had inherited. And therein lies the crux of wealth and our relationship to it. Wealth begets wealth. Money breeds money. The German poet Rilke, in the Duino Elegies, talks about “the genitals of money”. There is usually very little difference in the effort one puts into one’s life between those of us who have little money and those of us who have obscene gobs of it. If any generalization can be made accurately, it would of course be that those with the least work the hardest. Exactly how this situation can be made fairer is a subject for a lively debate.

    • Wow – what a completely magical youth! Your experience makes my head spin! I think your points are very on target, especially about how the hardest working among us are not the wealthiest, and that it isn’t WEALTH that is the problem, it is some people’s relationship towards wealth and (if I might add) with money. It interests me that the elderly Posts were living in the servant’s quarters … hmmm – maybe a nice metaphor for what we are getting at? It isn’t the grandeur that makes us happy, but simple proximity to the things we love?

      • I wish I knew more about the Posts ((Charles K. Post and ??? (we knew her only as Mrs. Post)). Googling his name brings up results only about an addiction treatment center funded by his estate, which certainly set’s one’s imagination in motion. My sense is that, like the British aristocracy and their manors, the Post’s inheritance devolved into a giant money pit and they minimized their expenses by retreating to the smallest, coziest part of the house where there actually was one of those giant kitchen fireplaces with something like a 6 by 8 foot opening. I remember it always in use, rimmed by their three Chesapeake retrievers, all highly trained in their essential role in bringing in downed ducks. “It’s duck shooting”, Mr Post would firmly correct us when we called it duck hunting. “You hunt foxes. You shoot ducks.” And of course he was right. Sitting in a reed blind at 5 AM with a thermos of coffee is definitely not a hunt. With the uncannily convincing wooden calls and the artfully crafted decoys, it’s really an ambush.
        Thanks, Ivette, for prompting me to reach back 60 years and relive some of those wonderful times.

    • I don’t see that info on their website but I’ll ask the next time I’m there. I DO know that there’s a loyal cadre of skilled volunteers there. They love working there for many reasons, including a terrific, very knowledgeable volunteer coordinator.

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