Editor’s note: This story originally published on PalmBeachDailyNews.com on Feb. 6, 2017.
Marjorie Merriweather Post liked to live large. Really large.
The world knew the size of her fortune, the length of her yacht and the speed of her Vickers Viscount turboprop jet with its Rolls-Royce engine. But her family, friends and retinue of cooks, footmen, chambermaids and chauffeurs were the ones aware that no matter the extent of Post’s cereal inheritance, there were few as generous and big-hearted.
“There are others better off than I am. The only difference is I do more with mine. I put it to work,” she once told an interviewer.
Her staff especially was mindful of Marjorie Post’s uncompromised standards at Palm Beach, whether accommodating notable houseguests, holding extravagant black-tie dinners or underwriting a charity gala. They could attest she was as confident hosting dignitaries beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in Mar-a-Lago’s living room as she was welcoming underprivileged children with peanuts and hot dogs to a circus tent put up on her lawn.
So they were probably not surprised in April 1944 when Mar-a-Lago, Post’s more-than-100-room ocean-to-lake enclave with a nine-hole golf course, was converted into an occupational therapy center for convalescent World War II veterans housed at The Breakers, then operating as the Ream General Hospital.
Her readiness to share her private realm during wartime foreshadowed what she expected might be one of her lasting legacies: her dream of having Mar-a-Lago repurposed for a greater good, as a presidential retreat and sanctuary for visiting heads of state.
However ambitious Post’s aspiration, the mansion’s construction posed obstacles that at times made its completion in 1927 as unlikely as the roundabout way it has finally fulfilled Post’s objective — as the Winter White House of President Donald Trump, who bought the property in late 1985 and opened his private Mar-a-Lago Club a decade later.
Mrs. Hutton builds
In April 1925, news broke that E.F. “Ned” Hutton, then 50, and his 38-year-old wife, Marjorie, had made plans to build a new home in the town’s South End. By then, the couple’s architect, Marion Sims Wyeth, and his associate Maitland Belknap had already created drawings for a “master’s house, another for the children, another for guests, and other unique features,” according to a report at the time in The Palm Beach Post.
The couple had found Hogarcito, their Golfview Road villa, “too small for their needs and not near enough to the ocean,” especially since her daughters from a previous marriage were now joined by their new half-sister, Nedenia, born in December 1923. Setting out to elaborate on Hogarcito’s camplike configuration, Wyeth formulated a sprawling house extending more than 500 feet in length along the coral-rock ridgeline.
Set back from the ocean boulevard with its more imposing, crescent-shaped profile visible from the lakeside, the house was then described as “the largest residential undertaking in the resort’s history.”
The month after the Palm Beach announcement, Ned Hutton was reported aboard the yacht Hussar anchored off shore in the South End, along with the Huttons’ friend, Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfeld, inspecting the ongoing preconstruction work. The 17-acre parcel was being cleared and the foundations set. Along the estate’s South Ocean Boulevard frontage, crews planted 14 of the island’s tallest coconut palms.
And then, things got complicated.
On May 9, Joseph Urban arrived at Palm Beach and registered at the Hotel Billows. Urban and Ziegfeld had been partners since 1915, when Urban moved from Boston to New York to design sets for The Metropolitan Opera and the Ziegfeld Follies. During the previous year, the renowned Viennese illustrator and architect had worked as a scenic designer for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Urban was summoned to Palm Beach to plan sets for Palm Beach Nights, a production set to open in January at Hutton and Ziegfeld’s Montmartre nightclub on Royal Palm Way, and confer on the interior decoration of the Huttons’ new house.
Four months later, a local newspaper headline read: “Broker planning home at cost of million dollars.” The Hutton house’s architect was identified as Urban, and the article noted that “acting with Mr. Urban in preparing the plans is Marion Sims Wyeth.” Apparently, the Huttons had decided to forego Wyeth’s conservative architectural sensibilities, replacing them with Urban’s flair for scenic effects.
Wyeth termed his work “quiet, subdued and rational.” The Beaux Arts-trained architect would later distance himself from Urban’s theatrical aesthetic at Mar-a-Lago.
By the time the $500,000 building permit was issued in mid-January 1926, Urban’s phantasmagoric vision was in place, enhanced by the arrival of father-and-son Austrian sculptors known as Franz Barwig the Elder and Franz the Younger. The two artist-craftsmen were members of Urban’s Viennese Secessionist Movement and were recognized for their wood, bronze and stone animal carvings.
With construction well underway, Urban supervised each room’s layered design schemes and furnishings while ensconced on a lakeside houseboat. The Barwig studio’s stone saws were abuzz. But in the spring, construction suddenly stopped, as rumors circulated that the Huttons were planning to buy Playa Riente, oilman Joshua Cosden’s palatial Mizner-designed house on North Ocean Boulevard. Contemporaneous reports declared the Huttons weren’t going to complete their “great mansion.” Instead, it would be demolished.
In late March 1926, Ned Hutton announced a halt to construction because the adjacent property to the south, then named Causeway Park, was sold to developers who planned “an encroachment with unrestricted commercial development.” Six weeks later, Palm Beach learned it was Anna Dodge — widow of Horace Dodge and then considered one of the richest women in the world — who sold the property to developers and bought Playa Riente for $2.8 million.
That summer, Hutton bought the lakeside parcel of the proposed development and restarted construction of the house. A few weeks later, Hutton and Anthony Drexel Biddle Jr. formed the Oceanfront Realty Co. and bought Causeway Park’s ocean frontage for $600,000. They hired Urban to design the private Bath & Tennis Club’s new clubhouse, as a mid-September hurricane had washed away the club’s original private cabanas that had occupied the south end of The Breakers’ beach.
By January 1927 the Huttons’ opulent winter cottage was fast nearing completion. Although most often described as Hispano-Moresque, the architecture of Mar-a-Lago may have been more accurately regarded as “Urbanesque.” Its façade was centered by a large arched glass window, while an entrance drive lined with Washingtonian palms deposited guests beneath a side-elevation porte cochere. Clad with Genovese Dorian stone enriched by Barwig-carved sculptures and reliefs, the sheltered entry’s steps led through an elaborated arch surrounding a wrought-iron grille glass door. It opened into the entrance hall’s prismatic flourish of geometric niches covered with centuries-old Havemeyer tiles and embellished with Spanish lanterns, marble busts and coats of arms.
Paneled double doors adorned with carved cherubs opened into the living room ringed by archways interrupted by Venetian silk needlework panels and crowned by an adaptation of the Thousand Wing Ceiling found at Venice’s Accademia. From the living room, guests could make their way into the dining room — a replica of the 16th-century original installed at Rome’s Palazzo Chigi — then step down to the lakeside loggia and patio, or step up through a triple-arched passage to an oceanside loggia.
On Jan. 14, the Bath & Tennis Club’s opening was delayed until the multitude of workers vacated the Huttons’ construction site across the street. A week later, the Huttons arrived at their newly completed residence, by then reported to have cost $2 million.
The house would be known as “Mar-a-Lago,” translated from the Spanish for “sea to lake,” but also a clever take on the lady of the house’s first name.
Mrs. Hutton entertains
During their first season in the house, Marjorie and Ned Hutton hosted two significant social affairs. In late February, they held a recital and benefit for the Women’s Guild at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. In the dazzling entrance hall, Marjorie stood in the receiving line with the guild’s officers and welcomed several hundred guests. Before the sunset musicale began, guests were invited to tour the mansion’s ground-floor rooms. During the performance, the Huttons sat on the upper terrace above guests who were accommodated on the lower patio, which was paved with polished stones from Long Island and composed in an Alhambra pattern.
The Fancy Dress Ball at the Everglades Club was unquestionably the season’s social Everest. For their first pre-ball dinner party, the Huttons laid a red carpet across the lawn. Each course was served on a Spanish pottery service with Venetian glassware. Following dinner, guests were driven to the gala. When all 100 of the Huttons’ guests made their entrance together, styled by Parisian and Hollywood costume designers, club members were reported to have gasped at the sight.
By late March, the season was over and the Huttons were gone. And by the following month, the sound of hammers again reverberated throughout Mar-a- Lago, as Urban and a contingent of workers began making what the press described as “extensive alterations and enlargements.”
The flurry of activity coincided, of course, with the spectacular bust of the building boom that had kept developers and workers frantic during the previous three years before it screeched to a halt.
“I remember it very well,” Post recalled for a 1969 article in the Palm Beach Daily News. “We refused to cease construction after nearly everyone advised us to stop. Had we stopped and discharged workmen, this would have added more unemployed, so we went ahead.”
Palm Beachers could set their calendars by the Huttons’ late January arrival each season. In 1929, Mar-a-Lago hosted a luncheon for Grand Duke Alexander Michaelovitch, father of Prince Nikita, presumptive heir to the Russian throne. There was a card party benefit for the Animal Rescue League. In March 1929 came their first of several circus benefits.
“I still have a movie of it,” Post later recalled. “We gave the show twice for charity and once for our friends,” adding that the party “raised a great deal of money for charity.”
While the Huttons were accustomed to the unnerving aspects of their status as public figures, the completion of their new 360- foot yacht Hussar V might have otherwise been the chatter of the 1931 season — if there hadn’t been so many whispers about the status of their marriage. Their time apart grew each season with briefer stays at Palm Beach. In September 1935, a month after their split was reported, Marjorie Post received a divorce decree in New York on the grounds of adultery.
Within months after the divorce, she married Washington lawyer Joseph Davies, who was subsequently named ambassador to Russia. Engaged in her new role as an ambassador’s wife with a much larger international platform, she broadened her cultural and social horizons.
Mar-a-Lago remained shuttered for five seasons. Following the couple’s diplomatic posts abroad, they made only brief visits in the early 1940s to Palm Beach, where they focused mainly on a number of charitable events. Whether as a result of her personal life or her newly acquired global experiences, Marjorie Merriweather Post would spend the next several decades pursuing a more consequential role for Mar-a-Lago.
Mrs. Merriweather Post builds a legacy
During the 1944 season, Joe and Marjorie Davies came to Palm Beach. Because of wartime dim-outs along the oceanfront, the couple took a short-term lease on a smaller lakeside house. That April, Marjorie volunteered Mar-a-Lago as a training center for returning servicemen. Thatch-roof huts were erected for workshops in leather tooling, sculpting, furniture repair, printing and carpentry. The compound’s staff and service buildings were converted into art studios, private counseling offices, radio repair shops, motor mechanic garages and rooms to show training films.
By the time the couple returned to Palm Beach in 1948, it had been seven years since they last stayed at Mar-a-Lago. She continued her charitable work during the 1950s, and later, helped turn the Red Cross Ball into an eminent diplomatic event. In 1961, she built a pavilion with a 30-foot-by-50-foot dance floor, designed by her longstanding friend, architect Marion Sims Wyeth.
Although Mar-a-Lago’s square-dance evenings became a coveted invitation and one of her passions, Mrs. Merriweather Post, as she was called after her fourth divorce, had begun her quest to make Mar-a-Lago more than an architectural magnum opus but a prominent national destination. Post offered the property to the Town of Palm Beach during a time when Palm Beach mansions were being supplanted by subdivisions and Jean Flagler Matthews set out to preserve and restore Whitehall, the Gilded Age mansion built by her grandfather, hotel-and-railroad tycoon Henry M. Flagler. Town leaders worried about Mar-a-Lago’s potential disruptive crowd of tourists.
So she proposed that the State of Florida use Mar-a-Lago as a “place to house people of importance, a presidential retreat, or temporary quarters for visiting heads of state.” State officials were alarmed by the operating costs.
Finally, after years of lobbying efforts, the federal government acquired Mar-a-Lago by an act of Congress in October 1972. When Post died the following year, she believed Mar-a-Lago had realized its ultimate destiny. But the estate’s preservation and upkeep expenses proved more than the National Park Service’s budget could sustain. Mar-a-Lago was returned to the Post Foundation in 1980.
Five years later, 40-year-old New York real estate developer Trump paid a recorded $5 million for Mar-a-Lago, then considered something of a white elephant, and reportedly bought the furnishings for another $3 million. (He later acquired the beach parcel for a reported $2 million.) He and the first of his three wives, Ivana, renovated the house, restoring many rooms to look as if Post still lived there.
“I thought I was buying a museum,” Trump told Palm Beach Life in 1986. “I never thought it was going to be a particularly comfortable place, but I thought it was so incredible as a statement that it would be wonderful to own. The fact is, it has turned out not only to be a museum but a very comfortable home.”
By 1995, Trump had won the town’s approval to open his private club. He has continued to maintain private quarters there, which he uses on visits with first lady Melania and their son, 10-year-old Barron. His adult children also visit frequently.
Palm Beach is an island of gilded mansions but few with a history as high-spirited as Mar-a-Lago, a winter “cottage” very nearly demolished before it was completed. Decades after Marjorie Merriweather Post thought she had accomplished her greatest ambition, Mar-a-Lago’s story, which might have once been a reminder of Palm Beach’s opulent past, today has the good fortune of playing an even more prominent role in the nation’s history.
Augustus Mayhew is the author of “Lost in Wonderland: Reflections on Palm Beach” and “Palm Beach: A Greater Grandeur.”