PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump’s palatial winter white house on this tony barrier island resort has long been a tourist attraction. Even more so now.
When the president is on the island, though, chances are you won’t be able to get near the place unless you’re a member of his Mar-a-Lago Club or a guest at one of its lavish charity balls.
Land and sea approaches to the 17.5 acre compound are routinely cordoned off by Secret Service and local police when he’s in town. Since winning the election, he’s spent Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays here plus the last three weekends.
Trump bought the 124-room estate and its furnishings in 1985 for nearly $10 million. He turned it into a private club, and his company operates it as a business.
A section is sealed off for private use of his family.
On Jan. 1, the price tag for joining the club was raised to $200,000, double what it was before the election. The Trump company justified the increase, contending $200,000 had been the original price, but was reduced to $100,000 during the recent recession. Its annual dues/dining fee total, $16,000, wasn’t changed, though.
The club has nearly 500 members.
As Palm Beach residents, my wife and I attended a couple lectures at Mar-a-Lago (Spanish for “Sea to Lake”) before the election.
Rooms have the feeling and museumlike trappings of a Loire Valley French chateau or palace. There are marble floors, chandeliers, rare Oriental carpets, old paintings and 16th century Flemish tapestries.
Large portraits of Trump in a white sweater and Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress who built Mar-a-Lago, face each other on opposite walls of the living room, a large sumptuous, high ceilinged space copied from a Venetian palace. There are black and white marble floor blocks; ceilings, walls and furnishings with gold leaf, and rooms and hallways with colorful Spanish tiles dating back to the 1400s.
The mansion was built in the 1920s by Post, who died in 1973. She willed it to the U.S. government and, seemingly clairvoyant, stipulated it be used by American presidents and foreign dignitaries. Claiming it had become too costly to maintain as a National Historic Landmark, the government gave the property back to Post heirs, who sold it to Trump.
For tax purposes the property was assessed at $32 million last year, putting Trump’s Palm Beach real estate tax bill at $600,426.
Since acquiring the property, he’s added tennis courts, a spa, a croquet court, updated the beach house and at a cost of $9 million built an adjoining Louis XIV ballroom with 40-foot ceilings, glittering chandeliers, furniture and walls with gold leaf.
The ballroom can comfortably accommodate 500 guests, and at least that many, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, were there for the 2005 Donald J. Trump-Melania Knauss wedding reception. Eleven months later, the Donald Jr. wedding reception took place.
An added perk for club members and area visitors is a 62-acre, 27-hole golf course and clubhouse Trump built in nearby West Palm Beach. Also earlier this month he obtained permission to construct a heliport on Mar-a-Lago property, allowing use of a helicopter to get to his estate from Palm Beach International Airport, a three-mile distance, to avoid some security road closures and resulting long traffic tie-ups and delays when he arrives.
About two dozen other billionaires maintain palatial estates nearby, most assessed at higher values, but none enjoys the panache and celebrity status of Mar-a-Lago. It’s where some of the area’s most lavish winter season charity fundraisers and other events are held.
The ornate, rambling main building can be seen from South Ocean Boulevard and from banks of the Intracoastal waterway. The front overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the rear faces the Lake Worth section of the Intracoastal waterway. There are swimming pools on the beachside and lakeside.
Coast Guard and Secret Service vessels guard both waterway approaches to the estate during the president’s presence. And before entering Mar-a-Lago, club members must show IDs and pass through metal detectors.
The building was designed by New York architect Marion Sims Wyeth, who also created other Palm Beach mansions, including the Florida governor’s in Tallahassee and Doris Duke’s landmark Shangri La Hawaii estate. He collaborated with Joseph Urban, an Austrian-American interior designer and illustrator who created parrot, monkey, ram and eagle sculptures on the structure’s exterior walls.
Trump would be the first to tell you Mar-a-Lago is one of his most prized possessions and has made him a part-time resident of Palm Beach. During the primary election campaign, he conducted a press conference and gave one of his speeches here.
Mar-a-Lago is about five miles south of the 15-room oceanfront Palm Beach mansion that was John F. Kennedy’s winter white house. The old Kennedy estate has since twice changed hands, twice been updated and remodeled and is now owned by a New York asset manager.
The president has been in litigious battles with nearby Palm Beach International Airport and Palm Beach County, trying to prevent planes from flying over Mar-a-Lago. Not only are they annoying club members, he’s argued, but they’re damaging his National Historic Landmark property.
Shortly after the election, though, he withdrew his latest suit, seeking $100 million in damages, after learning the Secret Service will no longer allow flights over Mar-a-Lago when he’s there.
Si Liberman is a retired Sunday editor of the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.
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