Mar-a-Lago: The Winter White House
Mar-a-Lago, owned by President Donald Trump, was built by Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973) in the 1920s. The cereal heiress wanted a winter retreat for herself and her second husband, Edward F. Hutton. She was said to have climbed through the jungle-like undergrowth with a real estate agent in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1924. They were in search of a piece of solid ground large enough to anchor the mansion she envisioned.
Post was already independently wealthy by this time. When she was only 27 (in 1914), her chronically ill father took his own life. With his death, she inherited the very successful Postum Cereal Company. Marjorie Post had been exposed to the business end of the company so she stepped in and proved to be a good manager. But after marrying financier Edward Francis Hutton in 1920, she ceded the chairmanship to him in 1923.
This gave her time for planning their winter retreat.
In 1924, Post purchased 17 acres on the island of Palm Beach and hired architect Marion Sims Wyeth. Wyeth was a Princeton-educated architect who trained in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts before joining the well-known U.S. architectural firm, Carrère & Hastings.
During her earlier years, Marjorie Post traveled extensively in Europe. The mansion she wanted to build would bring together Spanish, Moorish, and Venetian architectural elements and would be reminiscent of the grand villas along the Mediterranean.
Wyeth knew the home needed to be stunningly beautiful but also strong enough to withstand hurricanes. He and Post began gathering ideas and materials for what was to become a 55,700 square-foot house.
Wyeth imported vast amounts of Dorian stone from Italy, while Marjorie Post tracked down a collection of Old Spanish tiles—some dating to the 15th century–that had belonged to Mrs. Horace Havemeyer (the Havemeyer fortune came from sugar refining). Today these Mar-a-Lago tiles are thought to be the largest collection of their kind in the world.
From a distance, the focal point of the mansion is a 75-foot tower from which Post and her guests could enjoy magnificent water views. Because the home was situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Worth, the tower affords 360-degree land- and seascapes. This location also inspired the villa’s name: Mar-a-Lago, Spanish for sea-to-lake.
To work with her on the interior of the house, Post wanted a unique talent, and she sought out Joseph Urban, a theatrical designer. They would be planning design and decoration for vast public rooms—indoor and out—as well as 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms. Urban had designed sets for the opera house in Boston before being lured to New York to work for the opera company there. In this position, he was spotted by Flo Ziegfeld who hired him to design for the Ziegfeld Follies. This theatrical approach and large scale was exactly the look that Post wanted.
Room-by-room, Post and Urban worked to make each space feel special by adding unique architectural details. The gold leaf ceiling in the living room is a copy of the “Thousand-Wing Ceiling” in the Academia in Venice (the former school is now a museum). At Post’s request, religious symbols featured in the original ceiling were replaced with sunbursts and secular coats of arms. There was no economizing on the overall look, however. The gold leaf required for the living room completely exhausted the country’s stock of gold leaf.
The living room faces east toward the Atlantic Ocean, and an over-sized arched window highlights the ocean view. Post wanted one single, beautiful pane of glass to look through. The window was so large that special travel arrangements had to be made. The glass was specially manufactured at a factory in Pittsburgh, and then a protective crate was built around it. The route to Florida via freight car had to be carefully calculated to take into account the height of certain bridges and the dimensions of some tunnels. If the fit was tight, the train had to be re-routed to go another way.
All went well with the transport, and the glass arrived safely. But while installing the pane into the window frame carved with gryphons, the glass shattered. The entire process was repeated a second time, this time with more success. (To read more about the design details of Mar-a-Lago, visit Historic Details.com.)
Marjorie Merriweather Post and E.F. Hutton
After the Huttons married, they took on more traditional marital roles. Marjorie gave birth to their only daughter, Nedenia, who grew up to become actress and philanthropist Dina Merrill (1923- ). After the birth of her daughter, Post devoted herself to plans for the house.
Hutton assumed the chairmanship of the board of the Postum Cereal Company. Under his guidance, Postum acquired other companies, including the Jell-O Company, Log Cabin products, the Swans Down Flour Company, and the Minute Tapioca Company, among other businesses. In 1929, Postum bought Birdseye Frozen Foods, by then known as General Foods. With that acquisition, Postum took on what was by now the more appropriate name–General Foods.
Active Winter Life at Mar-a-Lago
Mar-a-Lago was completed in 1927, and during the next ten years or so, Mar-a-Lago and the Huttons’s social activities were frequently described in the society pages of newspapers, including The New York Times.
One such article (The New York Times, March 12, 1929) described a multi-day party featuring the “greatest show on earth.” The Ringling circus wintered in Florida, and so Marjorie Post arranged for a good number of the performers to come to Mar-a-Lago to put on a circus. Several performances were given for friends, and a special benefit performance was given for the Animal Rescue League.
The private circus opened with a grand parade featuring clowns, trained dogs, high-stepping Arabian horses, trapeze artists, and a miscellaneous group of other artists including “seven French midgets, all of whom speak at least seven languages,” as well as Spark Plug, the world’s smallest mule. John Ringling also sent over a slightly smaller version of the circus band.
The New York Times listed some of the “freaks” in the circus side show: a living skeleton, an armless wonder, the mysterious sword-box, a clairvoyant, a Scotch piper, a sword dancer, and a magician.
Audiences were provided with hot dogs, bags of peanuts and popcorn, and refreshing glasses of pink lemonade. To see a short video of the circus, click here and scroll down. (The video makes it clear that the weather was not ideal for the event.)
Mar-a-Lago in Later Years
Post and Hutton divorced in 1935, but Post continued to spend some of her time at Mar-a-Lago. When Marjorie Post died in 1973, she left her 128-room home to the U.S. government to serve as a winter White House.
But after evaluating the property, the administration of President Jimmy Carter returned it to the Post Foundation. Administrators were daunted by the cost of the upkeep, and there was also the issue of security. The property lies just a couple of miles from the main runway of the West Palm Beach airport.
Looking Like a White Elephant
Despite sitting vacant, people knew the community had an architectural gem. An application to list it as a national historic landmark was approved in 1980.
A few years later, businessman Donald Trump made an offer of $28 million for the property to develop it as one of his clubs. Because the zoning was for residential use only, the sale didn’t go through.
That left Trump to practice the art of the deal. Working through a third party, Trump bought a beachfront property directly beside Mar-a-Lago. He then threatened to build an over-sized home that would block Mar-a-Lago’s ocean view.
Of course, he pointed out to the town and to the Foundation, he would not build the planned-for monstrosity next to Mar-a-Lago if the mansion were sold to him. They soon saw the wisdom of his plan.
In 1985 Trump had his deal. Trump paid a little under $10 million for the house including many of the lavish furnishings and antiques within. This was much less than or original offer.
Mar-a-Lago: A Club
The club permits took a number of years to go through. In April 1995, The Mar-a-Lago Club opened as an exclusive but racially- and religiously-inclusive club. Today the initiation fee is $100,000; annual dues are $14,000.
Over the years Trump has added a swimming pool, a beach club, beauty salon, spa, five red clay tennis courts, and a croquet court. A ballroom completed in 2005 added 20,000 square feet to the mansion.
Mar-A-Lago: Also a Private Home
And of course, part of the house is sectioned off to serve as a private part-time residence for the presidential candidate and his current wife, Melania, and Barron, the couple’s ten-year-old son.
The problem with the airport remained. Trump launched several lawsuits asking traffic to be re-routed, but the best settlement he got pre-presidency was an agreement that the airport will make an effort at noise mitigation.
Since Donald Trump has now become President Trump, the Secret Service will now have final say over the air approaches to the nearby Palm Beach airport.
For a lovely photo essay of Mar-a-Lago, visit the Palm Beach Post.