Room by room
Brimming with history and beauty—and each one unique—historical homes hold a place in the hearts of people visiting a destination. Whether travelers relish stepping back in time, stepping into the lives of the rich and famous, or just stepping on old hardwood floors, the attractions are a top priority on group itineraries. These NTA-member historical homes have all that to offer and more, if only you’d come inside and explore them … room by room.
Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens
The spring and fall home of Marjorie Merriweather Post was Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, and it features the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia, Post’s collection of French art from the 1700s, and 25 acres of landscaped gardens and natural woodlands. Post, who inherited General Foods, was a businesswoman and philanthropist among the wealthiest women of her time. She took her less formal lunches and dinners in the estate’s Breakfast Room, a charming space connected to the grand dining room. Meredith DeSantis, the attraction’s special events and tourism manager in group sales, says the table was always set for four, and the room features some impressive elements.
“The bronze metalwork lining the room was repurposed from Marjorie’s 1920s apartment in New York City. The Russian gilt-bronze and green-glass chandelier from the late 1700s came from the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, one of the imperial estates outside St. Petersburg. The floral displays in the window make it difficult to tell where the garden ends and the room begins, an interaction of indoor and outdoor spaces notable throughout Hillwood,” she says.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, Virginia
George Washington dubbed the largest room in his mansion the New Room, and the space has recently taken on a new appearance and interpretation.
“It is by any standard one of the great interior spaces of early America, beautifully decorated and furnished to display his vision for the new country,” says Susan Schoelwer, executive director for historic preservation and collections.
The New Room, once interpreted as the formal dining room, more clearly served as a show or statement room in the tradition of grand saloons in 18th-century British country houses. In Washington’s time, this multi-purpose space was permanently installed as an art gallery, as sunlight streaming through the beautiful Palladian window provided ideal lighting for viewing his art collection.
Those visiting the mansion today will find the walls are heavily adorned with artwork, hung in gallery style. With the dining room table now removed, the room allows visitors to better admire the grand architectural details and height, its neoclassical design finishes and the art on display.
Belle Meade Plantation
Belle Meade Plantation was a home often bustling with people in the racehorse industry; it had more than 5,000 acres devoted to raising championship Thoroughbreds.
“Since horse racing was the most popular American sport in the 1800s, Belle Meade’s extensive entertaining and hospitality legacy would rival any home in the South,” says Director of Group Sales Mark James.
“The kitchen was the heart of the mansion. It is at these well-worn hearths that the traditions of outstanding Southern cooking were laid.” The kitchen staff won numerous awards for its blackberry wine and strawberry cordials in those times, and the traditional recipes are still made at Belle Meade. Guests can take culinary tours and taste those award-winning foods and wines and see the home’s original kitchen space, where visiting presidents and Civil War generals once had their food prepared.
Oak Alley Plantation
“We have so much new going on at Oak Alley, with our ReDiscover Oak Alley initiative that is part of a larger master plan,” says Director of Marketing Hillary Loeber.
With the completion of phase one in 2018 came the Artifact Room, which provides new opportunities to interpret the plantation’s history.
“This room is a reminder that what we share is not just the South’s history, Louisiana history or a plantation’s history, but rather human history,” Loeber says.
Visitors can study the monogrammed silver owned by Jacques Roman, the builder of Oak Alley, who operated a sugar plantation on the land.
“The Louisiana shackle placed next to the metal wedding plate had very distinctive differences in meaning to its owner,” Loeber says. “The plate, made of copper, was used to create Henri Roman’s wedding invitation, an announcement of his union to his bride—a happy event. The shackle was used to make a different kind of announcement with its rattle, as it announced the presence of a slave, who, incidentally, was not allowed to marry.”
Newport Mansions – The Preservation Society
Newport, Rhode Island
The Breakers, the grandest of Newport’s collection of stately homes, is a 70-room Italian Renaissancestyle palazzo and was the summer cottage of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, his wife Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt and their seven children.
The interior of the house’s Morning Room was designed by Richard Van Der Boijen in France, and reassembled at the mansion.
“The Morning Room at The Breakers faces east to catch the rising sun. Can you imagine a more picturesque setting to start your day?” asks Tourism Marketing and Creative Services Manager Barbara Shea. “The four seasons are depicted on the ceiling while the elements are detailed on the door paneling. Platinumleaf wall panels feature muses from Greek mythology, and portraits in the room include ones of Cornelius Vanderbilt; Countess Gladys Vanderbilt Széchényi, the Vanderbilts’ youngest daughter; and her husband, Hungarian Count Laszlo Széchényi.”
Bed by bed
There’s something about strolling through a garden full of vibrant blooms, towering trees and peaceful waters that makes you feel so in tune with the earth. Whether it’s a mixed-media garden of flower beds and art, acres of historical blooms or an event celebrating all things floral, the following popular spots help groups make colorful memories—bloom by bloom … and bed by bed.
Chihuly Garden and Glass
Artist Dale Chihuly said, “I want my work to appear like it came from nature, so that if someone found it on a beach or in the forest, they might think it belonged there.”
During a visit to this Seattle attraction, groups can see Chihuly’s first collaboration with landscape architect Richard Hartlage.
“The garden at Chihuly Garden and Glass provides a rich and colorful backdrop for Dale Chihuly’s artwork,” says Amanda Whitver, public relations manager. “Through careful planning and ongoing plant additions, the garden changes through the seasons, offering guests a new experience every time they visit.”
This spring more than 5,000 daffodils will be the first blooms to appear in the garden. There are monthly tours with the attraction’s Gardening Team, a ladybug release on Earth Day Weekend (April 20–21) and other gardening workshops that teach participants about the Pacific Northwest’s spring plants.
Blooming in the summer are four unusual varieties of the garden’s hydrangea collection, and in the winter, garden-goers can see ornamental kales and dusty millers as well as the primrose collection from a specialist grower in France.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California
The Huntington’s colorful blooms appear in early spring, beginning in March with cherry blossoms in the Japanese Garden. This garden was created in 1912, and visitors can see the moon bridge over a lake, a traditional Japanese house and trellises of wisteria, which also appear in March. Tours highlight these features as well as bamboo, bonsai and a karesansui rock garden.
Many of the camellias, a winter flower, will still be in bloom. The Huntington’s camellia collection has more than 80 species and grows in the Japanese and Chinese gardens.
The Desert Garden cacti blooms open in mid-April as do the nearly 1,200 varieties of roses in the Rose Garden. The Huntington’s Tea Room, which overlooks the Rose Garden, is a charming setting for guests to enjoy traditional English tea, finger sandwiches, scones and other treats in the afternoon.
For the Chinese Garden tour, groups are led by docents on a 90-minute walking tour with views of the traditional Suzhou-style garden, a lake, pavilions, a waterfall, and hand-carved stone bridges beneath oak and plum trees.
Philadelphia Flower Show
Originating in 1829, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Flower Show features diverse and sustainable plant varieties and design concepts from the world’s leading garden and floral designers. With more than 10 acres of show floor, it’s the nation’s largest and longest-running horticultural event, hosting gardening presentations, special events and competitions in floral arranging.
Michelle Ullman, associate director of sales with PHS, says the exhibits explore how flowers convey a wide range of emotions and messages in a universal language that transcend cultures and borders.
“Through imaginative exhibits, guests will see ideas like community, healing, peace, transformation and hope brought to life in surprising, vibrant ways,” she says.
The 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show will have a Riviera Holiday theme with inspirations from Mediterranean gardens.
“Groves of citrus trees will lead the way, providing a lush dramatic promenade. Guests will breathe in fragrant waves of lavender inspired by the terraced gardens of Monaco and see drifts of purple and white spiked salvia, specimen succulents and an intoxicating variety of scented geraniums, roses, rosemary and sage that create a stunning mosaic,” Ullman says.
Groups of 25 or more are offered a 20 percent discount. There are two-hour tours at 8 a.m. each day before the general public arrives. Visitors can pair it with the show’s Garden Tea, featuring light sandwiches, treats and an assortment of fine teas.
The next show is set to take place Feb. 29 through March 8, 2020, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch
Known for its overabundance of colorful ranunculus, The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch is home to more than 100 floral species that are on display from March through mid-May.
Visitors can view the attraction’s famous giant Tecolote ranunculus blooming, across 50 acres, as well as the Mediterranean, Whimsical and Wedding gardens; the new pathways in the sweet pea maze; advanced water tolerant gardening systems; a water recycling system; and displays of historical poinsettias and cymbidium orchids. They can also take part in hands-on workshops featuring art, basket and gardening classes in newly established greenhouses.
The fields have had more than 100 years of care and cultivation, beginning with Luther Gage, a 1920s horticulturist and Southern California settler, who was followed by Frank and Edwin Frazee in the 1930s. The ranunculus are native to Asia Minor and were once a different shape and color, but after many years of careful selection, they sprout each spring in their unique rainbow of color.
The attraction is open March 1 through May 12, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Guided tours with a wagon ride for 20 or more are $29, and group season passes can be purchased. Guided and self-guided walking tours are also available. The attraction has two free parking areas and is handicapped accessible.
Top photo by Chihuly Garden and Glass