Donald’s Digs in Palm Beach: Mar-a-Lago

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The front gate at Mar-a-Lago. All images courtesy Michelle Newman.

History and Background

Welcome to Mar-a-Lago, a historic property on 20 acres with a pedigree and undoubtedly the premier piece of Palm Beach real estate. Just like Donald Trump, Mar-a-Lago is over the top and bigger than life. Breathless opulence is the best way to describe this lavish 114 room villa built by Marjorie Merriweather Post (as in Post Cereals) and E.F. Hutton; it took nearly four years to build. Mrs. Post was the founder of General Foods and the wealthiest woman in America, whose fortune was said to be as much as $250,000,000.

Mar-a-Lago was a mini-resort built in one of the social capitals of the world – Palm Beach – for Mrs. Post’s friends. Completed in 1927, at a cost of nearly $8,000,000, this is where Mrs. Post entertained dignitaries and VIPS, and where actress Dina Merrill (Post’s daughter) and the Trump children grew up. And now Barron Trump, who looks just like his daddy, can be seen walking the gorgeous grounds ice cream cone in hand. Trump and family spend nearly every weekend in the season at Mar-A-Lago, the Trump’s second home. He’s an avid golfer and spends most of his time on the golf course at Trump International Golf Club.

A Moorish-Mediterranean mish-mash built on more than 20 sprawling acres of heaven, Mar-a-Lago is now an exclusive private club with guest suites, penthouse cabanas, croquet court, tennis courts, world class spa, and an oceanfront beach club.

Post hired two prominent architects for Mar-a-Lago, Marion Wyeth and Joseph Urban, the Austrian architect of Emperor Franz Joseph. The finest artisans were imported from Europe to work with local craftsman to cast ornate iron work, carve stone sculptures, hand craft wood work, cast plaster relief, and inlay marble floors. Many of the artisans and craftsman lived on the premises for several years while working on the estate. It’s not at all surprising when Mar-a-Lago was designated as a National Historic Site and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

After her death in 1973, Mar-a-Lago was transferred to the federal government to use as a diplomatic/presidential retreat, according to the terms in her will. For a brief time it was used as the southern presidential retreat, however, Mar-a-Lago was a security nightmare: it is surrounded by water. In addition, it cost a fortune to maintain. In 1985 Donald Trump purchased the estate from the Post Foundation. When facing bankruptcy, Trump desperately held onto his beloved Mar-a-Lago and did whatever was necessary not to lose his favorite property.

Mar-a-Lago translates from Latin to “Sea to Lake” and is the only property remaining in Palm Beach that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Worth.

“Mar-a-Lago is priceless, there’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world,” Bernd Lembcke explained during my private tour of Mar-A-Lago. Lembcke, managing director of Mar-A-Lago, is the epitome of an elegant gentlemen: refined, debonair, and very Cary Grant-ish, definitely a class act. He has been a member of the Trump Team for 13 years. He grew up in the hotel and hospitality industry in Hamburg and brings many years of expertise and experience to Mar-a-Lago.

Inside Mar-a-Lago

The exquisite craftsmanship and details of Mar-a-Lago belong to days gone by, when artisans took their time and took great pride in their work. Regardless of one’s budget, it’s no longer even possible to find this caliber of craftsmanship where everything was meticulously hand-crafted. It’s eye candy everywhere you look and every corner you turn. Amazing details prevail in the interior and on the exterior of Mar-a-Lago: elaborate carved and gilded ceilings; ornate plaster work; rare pecky cypress; carved Dorian stone statues; a 75-foot tower like a minaret piercing the sky providing spectacular vistas; carved crests; and fountains scattered on the grounds.

Clay roof tiles and marble from a Cuban castle were incorporated into the decor. Two architectural arches with a Persian tree of life motif flank the outside entrance to the sweeping veranda resembling the gates to an exotic souk.

Mrs. Post purchased a collection of 36,000 hand painted Hispano-Moorish tiles some of which dating back to the 15th century belonging to Mrs. Horace Havermeyer. These exquisite tiles feature Moorish and Andalusian motifs of geometric Islamic patterning just as you would see in Moroccan mosques and lion and castle motifs of Andalusia. The tiles are embedded into the walls as accents through out Mar-a-Lago and incorporated into architectural decor.

Nearly all of the furniture in the grand hall and living room is original. Ornate carved and gilded Italian and French Louis XIV grace the interior – the opposite extreme of Calvin Klein minimalism. A priceless Flemish tapestry was cut to size to fit the wall panels surrounding the enormous living room. A prized Meissen clock, collectible and valuable, is another showpiece in the living room. The stunning Steinway baby grand piano was custom painted with pastoral scenes and floral motifs in 1927; the exact piano is in Hillwood, Mrs. Post’s other grand estate in Washington D.C., which is open to the public for tours.

Mrs. Post commissioned Florence Ziegfeld’s set designer to paint mural panels for the formal dining room walls, these are original along with the gorgeous chandeliers. Trump converted the plush library featuring a crested fireplace into a cozy bar, TV viewing and sitting area.

As the dowager queen of Palm Beach, Mrs. Post loved to entertain lavishly and collected a huge assortment of the finest crystal and china, not to mention the solid gold charger plates kept locked in the safe. Only the best china and crystal would do for her taste; Capo di Monte, and fine Venetian stemware line the cabinets of the large butler’s pantry. In the 1990s Christies appraised the stemware at $1,000 per stem!

Donald the Designer

Not only is Trump good at making money, he is also good at decorating. Yes, that’s right, he has impeccable taste and really knows his architectural and design styles. “The Donald” has a good eye and a knack for selecting beautiful women and prime real estate. He has an appreciation for fine architecture, quality craftsmanship, art, and antiques. It’s no secret that Trump loves marble, crystal, and gold. At last count, there are at least seven different types of marble throughout Mar-a-Lago.

After touring Mar-a-Lago, I came to the conclusion that Trump is the ultimate perfectionist, who is only satisfied with the best of the best. When he does something, he does it right.

“To me, good is not good enough. It has to be the best, period,” Trump said. He admits to being relentless when it comes to quality and detail, and puts his money where his mouth is. While he could have settled for faux gold leaf to gild the elaborate ballroom ceilings, Donald decided to go with real 24 karat gold leaf, at a cost of $7 million in gold leaf costs alone. From the rich mahogany paneling in the spa to the exquisite Italian marble and the sparkling Austrian crystal chandeliers, Trump does not cut corners.

When I asked Lembcke who the interior designer was, I was rather taken aback at his response, “It was Mr. Trump of course, he’s our own in-house designer!” He continued explaining that Trump was very involved in the restoration of Mar-a-Lago, being adamant and going to great lengths to maintain the property’s historic and architectural integrity. Lembcke made it perfectly clear, “Mr. Trump didn’t want to change the main house as it is such a historic architectural treasure and after the house was vacant for eight years, he was determined to bring it back to life and maintain its integrity in the process.”

Trump has a “hands on” approach and provided invaluable input. He was personally responsible for a handful of major additions and improvements to Mar-a-lago: converting the library into a bar area; expanding the tea room; building the oceanside Beach Club; converting the servants quarters to a world class spa and beauty salon; and adding the 20,000 square foot Louis XIV ballroom.

The Versailles-like ballroom, is an opulent spectacle of mirrors, marble, gold, and seventeen Austrian crystal chandeliers making it the largest ballroom on the island. The original ballroom was not big or grand enough for Trump. Post used the original ballroom to host square dance parties and movie screenings; somehow its hard to imagine Palm Beach socialites draped in jewels square dancing.

In addition to being featured on The Apprentice, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and America’s Castles, Mar-a-Lago has received numerous awards and recognition. The Historical Society of Palm Beach has recognized Trump for his restoration of Mar-a-Lago to its original splendor while the American Academy of Hospitality Science has bestowed the 6 Star Award for overall ambiance, service, quality of food, management, and hospitality.

Famous Flag Feud

Several years ago Trump made headlines, (again) with the flag feud. This time he was up against the Palm Beach politicos, fighting to defend his constitutional right to display the American flag on his property. Things got pretty heated and nasty, but Donald is a fighter and he prevailed. True the flag was gigantic, but what’s wrong with that? It was on his property and Donald is ultra-patriotic and was showing his support of the troops by displaying the American flag. A smaller flag would have looked ridiculously out of proportion and would have been dwarfed if not lost on the expansive grounds. Needless to say, it became a messy situation before it was finally resolved. To show his gratitude and appreciation Donald made a $100,000 contribution to the Police and Fire Workers of Palm Beach and continues to make annual donations. Hats off to Donald for standing up and fighting for one of our basic constitutional rights as Americans. This story has a happy ending as Donald’s American flag is proudly flying high above Mar-a-Lago and welcomes visitors driving along beautiful A1A in Palm Beach.

The Trump Touch

Now on to the Trump Spa, with eight intimate treatment rooms all accented with marble and mahogany –  total luxury. A Japanese copper soaking tub is inviting. One can just get lost in this world class spa and salon, never wanting to return to reality.

The gift shop is well stocked with an abundance of Trump merchandise: gifts for the grandkids; Mar-a-Lago t-shirts embellished with Swarovski crystals; Donald’s signature collection of men’s ties and golf shirts; and for $27.95, an inscribed copy of his latest book, Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life.

THE DONALD … Up Close and Personal

While some folks may perceive Trump to be a bit brash and flamboyant, he was warm, friendly and welcoming when I met him at Mar-a-Lago and couldn’t have been nicer. (As an aside, Donald’s hair looks much better in person.)

I am the self-appointed unofficial president of the Donald Trump fan club; he has been my hero for more than 20 years. I couldn’t resist taking this opportunity to encourage him to run for public office; after all, if anyone can figure out a way to bail our country out of its current financial crisis, it’s Trump.

An all-American entrepreneur and a brilliant businessman who can make millions at the blink of an eye, Trump does a terrific job of marketing himself and his products. No matter what is thrown at him, he is the epitome of resilience and always manages to rebound bigger and better than before. He’s a human yo-yo and is an expert at making a great comeback to land on his feet regardless of the odds. He’s a winner, he’s got what it takes, and you want to be on his team.

The bottom line is, Donald runs a tight ship and surrounds himself with an excellent staff.

Celeb Sightings

Celeb sightings are de rigueur at Mar-a-Lago. In addition to Trump, you may see Tony Bennett set up somewhere on the grounds with his easel and paints capturing Mar-a-Lago’s magnificence in oils; Oprah and Maya Angelou lunching at the Beach Club; Regis Philbin playing tennis on the clay courts; or spot Celine Dion playing a round of golf at the club. So many of the who’s who hang out here the list is endless: Diana Ross, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Michael Jackson, Priscilla Presley, Olivia Newton John, just to name a few.

So, if you still have any cash left and weren’t wiped out after the market crash, you may want to join the ranks of these celebs and mingle with the rich and famous. All you need to do is come up with $200,000 for the initiation fee, pay $2,000 per month, have a member sponsor you, and once the board approves you, you’re in!

With such a rich history, colorful past and exquisite architecture, Mar- a-Lago is indeed the “Crown Jewel of Palm Beach” and no one can argue with Lembcke when he says that “Mr. Trump left his footprint and it is quite obvious that he brought Mar-a-Lago back to life.”

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More Images:

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Exterior view of Mar-a-Lago.
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The Versailles-like ballroom, an opulent spectacle of mirrors, marble, gold, and 17 Austrian crystal chandeliers is the largest ballroom on the island.
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Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago entry.
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Mar-a-Lago dining room as seen in the mansion's heyday.
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Mar-a-Lago living room east wall.
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Marjorie Merriweather Post
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The Versailles-like ballroom, an opulent spectacle of mirrors, marble, gold, and 17 Austrian crystal chandeliers is the largest ballroom on the island.
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Architectural details of Mar-a-Lago
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Architectural details of Mar-a-Lago

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