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 a Rolls-Royce engine. But her family, friends and staff were the ones aware that regardless the extent of Post’s inheritance, there were few as compassionate and generous. “There are others better off than I am. The only difference is I do more with mine,” Mrs. Merriweather Post once told an interviewer.
Her secretaries, cooks, maids, footmen, and chauffeurs especially were mindful of Post’s uncompromised standards at Palm Beach, whether accommodating notable house guests, holding black-tie dinners or underwriting a charitable 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 15 acre, 100+ room ocean-to-lake enclave with a nine-hole golf course, was converted into an occupational therapy center for convalescent WW 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 eventually fulfilled Post’s objective – as the Winter White House of President Donald Trump, who bought the property late in 1985 and opened it as his private Mar-a-Lago Club a decade later.
Mrs. Hutton builds
In April 1925, news broke that E.F. 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 Palm Beach Post report.
The couple found Hogarcito “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 born in December 1923, Nedenia Marjorie Hutton, later better known as actress Dina Merrill. Setting out to elaborate on Hogarcito’s camp-like configuration, Wyeth formulated a sprawling house sited 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.
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 a series of melodramas and comedies starring Marion Davies and produced by 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 Joseph Urban. The article noted that “acting with Mr. Urban in preparing the plans is Marion Sims Wyeth.”
Apparently, the Huttons decided to forego Wyeth’s architectural sensibilities, replacing them with Urban’s flair for scenic effects. Wyeth termed his work “quiet, subdued and rational.” The conservative Beaux-Arts trained architect would later distance himself from Urban’s theatrical stagecraft 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 the father and son Austrian sculptors known as Franz Barwig the Elder and Franz the Younger. Recognized as artist-craftsmen and members of Urban’s Viennese Secessionist Movement, they were celebrated for their wood, bronze and stone animal carvings.
With construction well underway, Urban supervised each room’s 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, the palatial Mizner-designed Joshua Cosden house on North Ocean Boulevard. Contemporaneous reports declared the Huttons were not going to complete the “great mansion.” Instead, it would be demolished.
In late March 1926, Ned Hutton announced construction was halted 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 Joseph Urban to design the Bath & Tennis Club’s new clubhouse as a September hurricane had washed away the club’s original cabanas that 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 port cochere. Clad with Genovese Dorian stone enriched by Barwig-carved sculptures and reliefs, the sheltered entry’s steps lead 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. A paneled double-doorway 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.
Franz Barwig, The Elder (1868-1931) & Franz Barwig, The Younger (1903-1985) at Mar-a-Lago
Mrs. Hutton entertains
During their first season in residence at Mar-a-Lago, Marjorie and Ned Hutton hosted two significant social affairs: a recital and benefit for the Women’s Guild at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea and a costumed dinner before the Everglades Club’s Fancy Dress Ball. In February, guests were impressed by the dazzling entrance hall where Marjorie stood in the receiving line with the guild’s officers to welcome several hundred attendees. 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 their guests who were accommodated on the lower patio, paved with polished stones from Long Island and composed in an Alhambra pattern.
The following month, the couple’s pre-Fancy Dress Ball gathering was set within Mar-a-Lago’s pleasure dome, as much a major Hollywood production as a Broadway picture palace. By late March, the season was over and the Huttons were gone. The following month, the sound of hammers were again reverberating throughout Mar-a-Lago, as Urban and a contingent of workers began making what was described as “extensive alterations and enlargements.”
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,” Mrs. Post recalled. “We gave the show twice for charity and once for our friends … The circus party raised a great deal of money for charity,” she said. That summer they retained golf course designer Donald Ross to plan a lakeside nine-hole course, making for the first private links at Palm Beach. The following season, Mar-a-Lago was the setting for Merry Wives, an entire theatrical production brought in from New York. Act I was presented on the patio; Act II, the terrace. Act III was staged in the living room. An orchestra played during intermissions and during supper.
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. Within months after the divorce, Hutton married Dorothy Metzger; Post married Washington lawyer Joseph Davies, who was subsequently named ambassador to Russia.
Engaged in her new role as an ambassador’s wife with a more substantive international platform, she broadened her cultural and social horizon. 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 savoir-faire, 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.
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 raise the Red Cross Ball into an eminent diplomatic event. Between 1960 and 1962, during her marriage to Herbert May, she undertook a considerable renovation of Mar-a-Lago that included the addition of a dance pavilion with a 30-foot by 50-foot floor, designed by her longstanding friend architect Marion Sims Wyeth. Though 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 in 1964, had begun her quest to make Mar-a-Lago more than an architectural magnum opus but a prominent cultural destination.
Post’s initial proposal was to offer Mar-a-Lago to the Town of Palm Beach. At the time, the resort’s mansions were being supplanted by subdivisions while Jean Flagler Matthews set out to preserve and restore Whitehall, the Beaux-Arts mansion built by her grandfather, hotel-and-railroad tycoon Henry M. Flagler. Town leaders worried about Mar-a-Lago’s disruptive potential 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 act of Congress in October 1972.
Five years after the Post Foundation reclaimed the estate, New York real estate developer Donald J. Trump paid a recorded $5 million for Mar-a-Lago and reportedly paid another $3 million more for furnishings. Later, he bought 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 Mrs. Post still lived there. “I thought I was buying a museum,” Trump told Palm Beach Life magazine 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. As a reality television personality and presidential candidate, he continued to maintain private quarters there that he now uses on visits with first lady Melania and their son, 10-year-old Barron.
Palm Beach is an island of gilded mansions but few with a history as serendipitous as Mar-a-Lago, a winter cottage very nearly demolished before it was completed. Decades after Mrs. Merriweather Post thought she had accomplished her greatest ambition, Mar-a-Lago’s story, which might have been just one of several reminders of Palm Beach’s opulent past, has the unique good fortune of playing a prominent role in the nation’s history.
Photography by Augustus Mayhew.
Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur