From jungle to winter White House: How Mar-a-Lago came to be

12:52 p.m Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 Local
An early photograph of Mar-a-Lago in the 20s after it was built. Florida State Archives

In 1924, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, the 37-year-old wife of financier E.F. Hutton, hacked her way through the jungle that was Palm Beach with her real estate agent and a carpenter to find an appropriate setting for a palatial mansion, so grand that she would one day donate it for use as a winter White House.

She found it on a large tract of land bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by Lake Worth. Aptly, she named the estate she would build on it Mar-a-Lago, Spanish for Sea to Lake.

Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post on Feb. 1, 1922. The next year she would be scouting for land for Mar-a-Lago. Palm Beach Daily News

Six hundred workers, many local, labored more than three years to build the mansion.

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Three boatloads of Dorian stone were brought from Genoa, Italy, for the exterior walls. Within niches in the entrance hall are two 16th century Roman marble busts.

The walls were decorated with about 36,000 antique Spanish and Portuguese tiles. The floors are marble and roof tiles from Cuba.

E.F. Hutton in 1916. Library of Congress

The interior was laden with gold. It had gold leaf walls and ceilings and gold bathroom fixtures. Rooms were modeled after European palaces. One report said workers used up the country’s entire stock of gold leaf when gilding the living room’s 42-foot-high ceiling.

The estate is 17 acres of unapologetic opulence. When completed, the Spanish-Moorish-Venetian-Italian house had 55,700 square feet divided among 119 rooms, including 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms.

It was as if Post channeled Trump’s style 20 years before his birth.

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In 1964, at age 77, Post tried to give Mar-a-Lago to the state, but the people of Florida couldn’t afford the upkeep. In 1969, she persuaded Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall to designate Mar-a-Lago as a National Historic Site, and when she died in 1973, she willed it to the U.S. government to be used as a winter White House.

No presidents spent the night — until Trump.

In December 1980, the government gave Mar-a-Lago back to the Post Foundation, finding it too expensive to maintain. Several months later, the foundation put the estate on the market. The asking price: $14 million.

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In 1984, a developer from Houston put a $250,000 deposit on the property, with the sale contingent on the town approving the developer’s request to subdivide the property into nine lots.

Although the town approved the plan, the developer backed out in October 1985 after his financing fell through.

The foundation put Mar-a-Lago back on the market. And along came Trump.

The New York real estate tycoon, still in his 30s, was just coming into national prominence.

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He had built Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan and taken over the old Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central Station, rechristening it the Grand Hyatt. Just a year earlier, Trump opened his first Atlantic City casino, Harrah’s at Trump Plaza.

“My love affair with Mar-a-Lago began in 1985,” Trump wrote in his 1997 book, “Trump: The Art of the Comeback.” According to Trump, it was a chauffeur who introduced him to Mar-a-Lago.

“During a drive to a dinner party, I asked the chauffeur what was for sale in town that was really good,” Trump wrote. “He looked at me and without even a thought said, ‘Well, the best thing by far is Mar-a-Lago.’”

Trump asked the chauffeur to drive by the ocean-to-Intracoastal mansion before the party.

“I immediately knew it had to be mine,” Trump wrote.

Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in two pieces, paying $2 million in November 1985 for a key oceanfront sliver and $5 million the next month for the main property and mansion. He paid an additional $3 million for the furnishings, bringing the total cost to $10 million.

He described it as “an old, beat-up, overgrown Rembrandt waiting to be restored.”

“I came across the wreckage — a fairy-tale castle built by a kindred spirit,” Trump wrote. He said he wanted to save the estate from “the wrecker’s ball,” and the “many potential acquirers” who wanted to subdivide Mar-a-Lago into “mansion lots.”

“I felt I could not let this happen,” Trump wrote.

But in July 1992, he tried to do just that. Buried in debt, he attempted to negotiate with the banks. Instead, he ticked them off, he wrote in “The Art of the Comeback.”

“When you owe billions of dollars, and then you journey down to Mar-a-Lago on your 727 for weekends, it irks them,” Trump wrote. “I felt I had to do something, and I had to do it fast.”

He proposed subdividing the property and building mansions. He would preserve the main house, which he said had “very little value because it is so big.”

“I’ll call the project the Mansions at Mar-a-Lago,” Trump wrote. “I’ll turn it into a moneymaker.”

The town rejected his plan.

So he decided to convert it into a private club — with promises to preserve its historic character in perpetuity.

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