Before it became a private club owned by Donald Trump, the opulent Palm Beach mansion known as Mar-a-Lago was built by businesswoman and philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post as a place to entertain.
One of the wealthiest women in 20th-century America, Post came by her riches in multiple ways. She not only inherited the bulk of the cereal fortune built by her father, C.W. Post—estimated at the modern equivalent of $550 million. She also inherited control of the company, which she herself grew exponentially by cannily purchasing other food-industry leaders like Jell-O, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Log Cabin syrup, Bird's Eye and others—and calling the new conglomerate General Foods. If that wasn't enough, she also married into great wealth with her second husband, legendary Wall Street financier E.F. Hutton.
The decision to build
In the early 1920s, Marjorie Merriweather Post wanted to build a home in Palm Beach. This wasn't because she needed a place to stay—she already had a mansion in the area, called Hogarcito—but because she felt a larger abode would better suit her entertaining needs.
Palm Beach still had plenty of undeveloped land in the 1920s, and Post ended up selecting 17 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Worth, a setting that inspired the name Mar-a-Lago, Spanish for "sea to lake."
Construction on Mar-a-Lago began in 1923. Architect Marion Sims Wyeth initially oversaw its plans, but it was Joseph Urban, a scenic designer for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Metropolitan Opera, who would have a bigger impact on the property and its ultimate amalgamation of various types of European architecture.
Urban had extravagant ideas that appealed to Post, but they also sent costs soaring. However, she opted not to stop or slow down construction, in part because an economic downturn had hit Florida and she wanted to keep people employed. In the end, 600 skilled workmen helped build Mar-a-Lago, whose 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms were finished in 1927. Husband E.F. Hutton wasn't impressed, stating, "You know Marjorie said she was going to build a little cottage by the sea. Look what we got!"
Opulence and splendor
Fortunately, Post loved her new home. Antique Spanish tiles and stones from Genoa, Italy, had been used in its construction. A 75-foot tower offered stunning views. Bathrooms featured gold fixtures (which Post felt were "easier to clean") and a dining room that mimicked part of Rome's Palazzo Chigi.
The house didn't garner universal approval: Some declared it too garish, and architect Wyeth would ultimately downplay his involvement. But Post was not only pleased with Mar-a-Lago, she enjoyed the reactions it got. She occasionally opted to remain hidden on an upper balcony when new visitors entered the living room—which had a gold ceiling modeled on the Accademia's "Thousand Wing Ceiling" in Venice and silk tapestries from a Venetian palace. She wanted to witness their amazement as they took in her home for the very first time.
In 1929, Post brought Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to Mar-a-Lago to put on a show that featured clowns, trapeze artists and the world's smallest mule. After privately entertaining some of society's most fortunate, Post had the circus perform to raise funds for charity, and invited some underprivileged children to experience the fun for themselves. On another occasion, she arranged for the cast of a Broadway show to dazzle her guests.
However, Post also made time for less exotic entertainments. As she grew older, she embraced square dancing; she later added a wing at Mar-a-Lago to host square dances and movie screenings.
Given her fortune and prominence, Post wanted to protect her family, a concern that was heightened following the tragic 1932 kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's young son. At Mar-a-Lago, Post required a high level of security for her youngest daughter, Nedenia Hutton (who grew up to be actress Dina Merrill).
Post had iron bars placed on the windows in Nedenia's suite, and later hired Pinkerton detectives to protect her. Despite the sometimes stifling measures, Nedenia's corner of Mar-a-Lago was a dreamy environment for a child. Its fanciful decor was inspired by fairy tales, with even the protective bars incorporating a nursery-rhyme motif.
Aiding World War II soldiers
Post didn't hesitate to use her money to help others; a granddaughter once noted, "She was one of the most generous women I’ve ever known." That same generosity applied to her Palm Beach home in April 1944, when Mar-a-Lago's grounds were opened to offer occupational therapy to convalescing soldiers.
Buildings on the estate were transformed into studios and repair shops, and training was available in everything from carpentry to printing to sculpting. Space was also provided for returning veterans to receive counseling.
'Winter White House'
Post, who wanted Mar-a-Lago to survive after her death, initially offered it to the state of Florida. But officials, concerned about high operational costs, turned it down. Her next plan was to give it to the federal government for use as a "Winter White House." The U.S. government, encouraged by Post's promise to provide maintenance funds for the estate, accepted in 1972.
However, after Post's 1973 death, the costs of upkeep (about $1 million per year) outpaced the money she'd left behind, prompting the government to return the estate to the Post Foundation in 1981. After years of searching for a buyer, in 1985 Donald Trump purchased Mar-a-Lago for the bargain-basement price of $8 million, which included both the home and its furnishings and antiques. After Trump's ascension to the presidency, his visits to Mar-a-Lago have, in a way, fulfilled Post's vision of a "Winter White House."