Mar-a-Lago Part One: Where Each Day is a Holiday, A Photographic Essay

AMANDA WALTERS
26.67694 N 80.03694 W

 
 Palm Beach coast line, Biltmore Hotel, West Palm Beach, FL. D&M Post Cards & Records Co., postmarked 1970.

Palm Beach coast line, Biltmore Hotel, West Palm Beach, FL. D&M Post Cards & Records Co., postmarked 1970.

In the early Twentieth Century the fantasy of south Florida as a winter playground for the wealthy was established. This contrived reality set in motion a permanent shift in the regional aesthetic. The construction of tropical resorts, like the Royal Poinciana Hotel in the late 19th century and the Biltmore Hotel in the early twentieth century, created an image of the state as a site of temperate leisure for the affluent that combines the fantasy of other place with the ease of proximity. These images helped produced the regional housing boom of the 1920s and successive housing developments at various scales for various incomes, but all for the middle class or wealthier. It was in that decade that one such home was erected for Post cereal heir Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago.

 Ralph Wolfe Cowan,  The Visionary , 1989. Cowan is known for shedding years and pounds off his subjects.

Ralph Wolfe Cowan, The Visionary, 1989. Cowan is known for shedding years and pounds off his subjects.

 The portrait has become a tourist attraction since Trump announced his candidacy.

The portrait has become a tourist attraction since Trump announced his candidacy.

Mar-a-Lago is a fifty-eight room estate, built by Post and her husband at the time, Edward Francis Hutton. After Post’s death the estate was willed to the US government to be used as a Winter White House. Deemed too costly to keep up, it was returned to the Post estate, and then purchased by current owner and US President Donald Trump in 1985. Little change has been made to the aesthetic of the estate through the changes at the helm, save the occasional additions to reflect the persona of the new owner: a portrait of the man in the uniform of the region, leisure sport wear, and the shift from private estate to for-profit private club.

  Fortune . Aerial view of the Mar-A-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, 1973, color slide. State Archives of Florida,  Florida Memory .

Fortune. Aerial view of the Mar-A-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, 1973, color slide. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Located between a stretch of Atlantic Ocean beachfront and the Lake Worth Lagoon, the geographic position was the inspiration for the estate name, which translates as “sea-to-lake.” Its consistent proximity to water offers the estate an illusion of a remote island that is aided on a third side by the dense planting of various palms. This is paradise. The estate was built in the popular architectural style of the region, pan-Mediterranean revivalist. The style combines the Eurocentric tendencies of the US bourgeoisie with a pan-tropic twist. The inspiration of such a combination came from the actual tropics. Colonial developments in the Caribbean, Central and South America provided the combination template for the new domestic tropical destination, South Florida. (1)

 Aerial view from  Palm Beach Post . The road surrounding the estate is receded as to not obstruct the view of the ocean. Where altering the road was not possible, a privacy wall was built out of stone imported from Italy.

Aerial view from Palm Beach Post. The road surrounding the estate is receded as to not obstruct the view of the ocean. Where altering the road was not possible, a privacy wall was built out of stone imported from Italy.

The continuity of the unobstructed view and dazzling privacy wall maintain the mystification of the visitor’s experience. Any location on the estate lawn posits the landscape as a staged scene, establishing a front and back sides. The visitor becomes a member of the audience and the reality of a landscape that one can touch is confused with the fantasy of a play staged on a remote island. The creation and differentiation of front and back further fragments the visitor’s sense of reality. While writing on staged authenticity in The Tourist, Dean MacCannell describes the process of alienation that occurs in the front/ back separation: “The problem here is clearly one of the emergent aspects of life in modern society… a weakened sense of reality, appears within the differentiation of society into front and back. Once this division is established, there can be no return to a state of nature. Authenticity itself moves to inhabit mystification.” (2) For MacCannell, this problem progressed to include a range of confusing tourist activities, like factory tours and the neo-liberal desire for an “authentic” experience of foreign places. The crisis of alienation that occurs while reading the Mar-a-Lago landscape lies in the tension between the fact that the landscape is present and the realization that it is also represented.
 Aerial view of Mar-a-Lago from  Vanity Fair.

Aerial view of Mar-a-Lago from Vanity Fair.

 Library of Congress, April 1967, VENETIAN ROOM SHOWING VENETIAN GLASS MIRRORS AND CHANDELIER - Mar-a-Lago, 1100 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, FL.

Library of Congress, April 1967, VENETIAN ROOM SHOWING VENETIAN GLASS MIRRORS AND CHANDELIER - Mar-a-Lago, 1100 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, FL.

The interior design of the estate reads like an exhibit at a world’s fair. Each of the fifty-eight rooms were designed after regional, mostly European, architectural styles, but most of all, each subscribe to the theme of exuberance: the Venetian room, Dutch room, Adams room, a gold leaf room, and a Moroccan tile motif for the patio. The man responsible for realizing the hybridized and global grandeur of the estate was interior designer Joseph Urban. At the time he was contracted by Post to design the estate’s interior, Urban was best known for his scenic set design and architecture for theaters. His experience in taking an audience to a world far, far away was fully utilized at Mar-a-Lago. In a collaboration with Post, Mar-a-Lago would become a living museum to Post’s travels, filled with objects she collected. Each room represents a different destination by theme, but not necessarily historical accuracy.
 Caption: Library of Congress, April 1967, BAS RELIEF, NORTH PAVILION OF CLOISTER, Mar-a-Lago, 1100 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, FL.

Caption: Library of Congress, April 1967, BAS RELIEF, NORTH PAVILION OF CLOISTER, Mar-a-Lago, 1100 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, FL.

The curation of those objects, removed from their culture and history, creates a monocultural otherness. It hybridizes all the cultures the objects were culled from into a singular, clean and tidy entity. This aesthetic foregrounds the viewer’s experience over the ritual or labor history of its maker. The thrill of unknown places is sanitized and prepared for a safe experience. Tropical palms line the courtyard floor, a glazed Spanish tile set in a Moroccan pattern. Copies of artworks mingle with original works without any notation of their difference: tapestries taken from a palace in Venice are shown against copies of frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli and Riccardo-Medici Plazzo, found in Florence, framed by a room otherwise covered entirely in gold leaf, an aesthetic and medium more comfortably associated with Europe than South Florida.

 Library of Congress, April 1967 DETAIL IN ADAM ROOM SHOWING SCULPTURAL NICHE AND MATCHING CEILING AND RUG PATTERN - Mar-a-Lago, 1100 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, FL. “Adam” is the name of an 18th century English neoclassical architectural, interior, and furniture style named for its creator, Robert Adam. Post and Urban designed the Mar-a-Lago bedroom after the style, already a recreation of classical styles.

Library of Congress, April 1967 DETAIL IN ADAM ROOM SHOWING SCULPTURAL NICHE AND MATCHING CEILING AND RUG PATTERN - Mar-a-Lago, 1100 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, FL. “Adam” is the name of an 18th century English neoclassical architectural, interior, and furniture style named for its creator, Robert Adam. Post and Urban designed the Mar-a-Lago bedroom after the style, already a recreation of classical styles.

The thematic design of the estate was fitting for the era. South Florida was marketed as a new tropical frontier, waiting to be developed as a land of second homes. The short duration of the inhabitants’ length of stay, and the nature of being a second home, guided or loosened the direction of the regional design.

 Entrance to owner’s suite, Mar-a-Lago, April 1967, Library of Congress.

Entrance to owner’s suite, Mar-a-Lago, April 1967, Library of Congress.

In an article for the American Architect journal, contributor Irvin L. Scott situates Mar-a-Lago in these terms, “The Palm Beach Estate of E. F. Hutton [husband of Merriweather Post at the time of construction] is intended as a place of comparatively short residence. Its situation is in one of our principal winter playgrounds where each day is a holiday and where people go to enjoy a semi-tropical climate for perhaps two months in a year. These factors seemed a rational argument for designing a house tending toward a richness, a festive quality, and one that could be well out of the ordinary.” (3) As their second homes, these dwellings were touristic. The home itself is a fantasy place.

The site is both actual, in its inhabitability, and artificial, as a recreation of other places. In this combination of diametrically opposite states occurs a concrete and tangible escapist fantasy, accessible without a passport, yet only for those who can afford it. Mar-a-Lago stands as a monument to this fantasy, an engorged variation of the regional style. It is a monument to the bourgeoisie fantasy of travel and luxury; it offers the illusion of a remote island and the comfort of accessibility; it branches two seasons of capitalist nobility. It’s in these combinations that the site exudes its largest cultural contribution, the visualization of the violent potential of architecture and landscaping. The estate not only combines leisure and power; it makes evident that leisure is power.


Born and raised in the state of Florida, AMANDA WALTERS is an interdisciplinary artist, who writes, weaves, sews, and makes soft sculptures. Her work explores the strange and well manicured history of her home state, images of the tropics, and page 9 stories from the newspaper. She is based in Oakland, California.
  1. A note on the replication colonial architecture found in tropical regions: in a 1925 New York Times interview, Palm Beach Biltmore Hotel proprietor George Merrick credited his inspiration of the architectural style of the pan-Mediterranean hotel to the Spanish and Moorish architecture he observed on trips to Mexico and Central America.

    “Miami and the Story of its Remarkable Growth: An Interview with George E. Merrick,” The New York Times, March 15, 1925.  ↩

  2. MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 93. MacCannell writes on the sociologic rituals of tourism and the search for modernity. Applying Marxist theories in relation to things onto the economy of experience and cultural production, MacCannell locates modernity in the formation of ideologies constructed within sightseeing.

  3. Scott, Irvin L. “Mar-a-Lago ‘Estate of Edward F. Hutton, Palm Beach, Fla.” The American Architect, v. 133 (June 20, 1928), 795-811.