The gorgeous history of Mar-a-Lago, long before Donald Trump and the FBI manhunt: NPR


Mar-a-Lago was one of several properties built by heiress and philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post.

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Mar-a-Lago was one of several properties built by heiress and philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Joe Riddle/Getty Images

Mar-a-Lago has dominated the headlines in recent weeks thanks to the now-famous FBI raid of former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence.

But long before it housed government documents, the opulent mansion had a rich and vibrant history. And it all starts with a rich heiress.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the press from Mar-a-Lago on Thanksgiving Day 2018.

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Former President Donald Trump speaks to the press from Mar-a-Lago on Thanksgiving Day 2018.

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The early party years at Mar-a-Lago

Marjorie Merriweather Post was the heir to the Postum Cereal Company – which eventually became the “General Foods Corporation”. Post took over the company at just 27 years after her father’s death, making her one of the richest women in the world at the time.

She named this Palm Beach property aptly. Mar-a-Lago means “sea to lake” in Spanish – and as the name suggests, it has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Lake Worth on the other.

Mar-a-Lago cost about $7 million to build in the 1920s, which would be more than $100 million today.

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Mar-a-Lago cost about $7 million to build in the 1920s, which would be more than $100 million today.

Joe Riddle/Getty Images

Mar-a-Lago was just one of her properties. Another notable Post home is the Hillwood mansion in Washington, DC, which is now a museum.

Mar-a-Lago took four years to build and cost Post about $7 million (which translates to more than $100 million today). Homes like Mar-a-Lago epitomized the Roaring 1920s, a time of booming wealth and consumerism.

Freelance journalist and doctoral student Michael Luongo examined the Post family’s papers at the University of Michigan and covered Mar-a-Lago’s history for Smithsonian Magazine.

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“Even by Palm Beach standards, Mar-a-Lago was spectacular,” he wrote.

Marjory Meriwether Post goes grouse shooting in Scotland in 1937.

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Marjory Meriwether Post goes grouse shooting in Scotland in 1937.

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The property is situated on about 20 acres and the house is massive. It’s more than 37,000 square feet, complete with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms. It is decorated with 36,000 historic Spanish tiles, imported Italian stone, thousands of feet of marble, and gilded fixtures and gold leaf throughout the house.

Post was a housewife at her core – she New York Times the obituary said she built Mar-a-Lago because her first Florida home “became too small for her parties.”

“Florida in the 1920s and 1930s served the same role it serves now: It was a place where people vacationed,” Luongo told NPR. “But we’re not talking about your average middle-class family going to Disney. We’re talking about the very elite that will come to Palm Beach, that will come to the parties that she will host.”

Mar-a-Lago sits on about 20 acres of land and is more than 37,000 square feet, with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms.

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Mar-a-Lago sits on about 20 acres of land and is more than 37,000 square feet, with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms.

The Library of Congress

Post hosted royalty and diplomats, elaborate parties and charity events, including the International Red Cross Ball. And a lot of it was open to the Palm Beach community around Mar-a-Lago.

“She was also very interested in making sure that underprivileged people were invited to events so that they could experience, like music concerts,” Luongo said. “[Post was] a woman of means, very rich, very shrewd, very understanding of the importance of her role in society.”

According to Luongo, she hired the Ringling Brothers Circus and Barnum & Bailey in 1929 to perform for underprivileged children for a charity fundraiser. It was important to her that these events made money for the charities she supported.

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“She found ways to make sure costs were kept down for a smaller organization,” Luongo said. “She made sure that if she opened her doors, it would serve a social purpose in the community sense, but it would also serve a social purpose in the upliftment of society for those who were from poorer backgrounds or for charities.”

Mar-a-Lago was designated a National Historic Site in 1969 by the Department of the Interior and later placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mar-a-Lago took about four years to build and was completed in 1927.

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Mar-a-Lago took about four years to build and was completed in 1927.

The Library of Congress

When Post died in 1973, she willed Mar-a-Lago to the federal government to be used as a retreat for presidents and diplomats—she wanted it to be a “Winter White House.”

In the end, it didn’t happen because the government found it too expensive to maintain. Homes like these are known as “white elephants” – a property that is so large and expensive that it becomes a burden.

“There were other examples of houses like this that no longer exist [1950s and 1960s]because tastes changed, because houses were sold by families because people couldn’t afford them anymore,” Luongo said. “That’s why a lot of them over the years were torn down.”

Bargain buy for a property tycoon

When the Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation put it up for sale, and after multiple purchases fell through, that’s when real estate magnate Donald J. Trump.

In December 1985, Trump bought the property from the foundation for $5 million. He also paid millions more to buy Mar-a-Lago’s antiques.

Then President Donald Trump makes a video call to troops stationed around the world at the Mar-a-Lago estate in 2019.

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Then President Donald Trump makes a video call to troops stationed around the world at the Mar-a-Lago estate in 2019.

Nicholas Klamm/AFP via Getty Images

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“He really got a beautiful piece of property for a very, very low amount of money,” Luongo said.

“Without Donald Trump, would this house have been saved or not? So that’s another thing to think about,” he said. “But you know, it’s a beautiful part of history and it’s always been part of history.”

In 1995, Trump transformed his private residence into “The Mar-a-Lago Club” we know today, where the initial membership fee is $200,000.

Fast forward to 2017, former President Trump began referring to Mar-a-Lago as his “Winter White House.” Post’s influence lived on through Mar-a-Lago’s glamorous interior, which was featured as a backdrop for White House events and press conferences. During his presidency, Trump hosted world leaders at the mansion, including former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Donald Trump at the end of a joint news conference at Mar-a-Lago in 2018.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Donald Trump at the end of a joint press conference at Mar-a-Lago in 2018.

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After his presidency, Trump moved to Mar-a-Lago full-time. But Mar-a-Lago recently made headlines for the FBI’s investigation into the seizure of government documents from the property.

In many ways, Mar-a-Lago is Post’s legacy, and now it’s part of former President Trump’s. It’s hard to know how Post would feel about Mar-a-Lago today.

“I can’t think of her, but I think in a lot of ways she would be intrigued,” Luongo said. “I think as someone who has used her position to promote the United States, to promote notions of justice, to promote notions of diplomacy … I think in that sense she would probably be appalled.”

So in a way, Post got his wish: Mar-a-Lago would live on as the “Winter White House.”

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