Mar-a-Lago Part One: Where Each Day is a Holiday, A Photographic Essay
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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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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. ↩
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.
Scott, Irvin L. “Mar-a-Lago ‘Estate of Edward F. Hutton, Palm Beach, Fla.” The American Architect, v. 133 (June 20, 1928), 795-811.