Pruning the Parks: Mar-a-Lago National Historic Site (1972-1980) Was a Gift the National Park Service Couldn’t Afford to Keep

Mar-a-Lago living room, 1967. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The former Mar-a-Lago National Historic Site -- established 21 October 1972 and abolished 23 December 1980 -- certainly has an interesting history. In fact, it’s better than fiction.

In the1920s, one very satisfying way to display your wealth and social status was to buy beachfront property in Florida, build a “what-God-would-have-built-if-He-had-the-money” mansion on it, and lavishly entertain Very Important People during the winter social season. That’s what heiress and business tycoon Marjorie Merriweather Post decided to do on 20 acres of raw, thickly vegetated land on Palm Beach Island. The result was the Marion Wyeth & Joseph Urban-designed Mar-a Lago, one of America’s most luxurious private estates.

It took four years to build Mar-a-Lago, and when the 115-room, 62,500-square foot (plus) main building was completed in 1927 it was the place to party in Florida. Other socialites followed suit with party-on mansions of their own, soon making Palm Beach a renowned winter haven for what ordinary folk are inclined to call “the filthy rich.”

Mar-a-Lago (Spanish for “Sea-to-Lake”) frequently hosted the International Red Cross Ball, a posh charity ball that Mrs. Post inaugurated for the white tie, tails, and tiara crowd. The socialites, ambassadors, and other celebrities invited to events like this during the winter social season were a veritable Who’s Who of the American elite.

Mrs. Post continued to use the Mar-a-Lago property as a winter retreat until her death on September 12, 1973, at age 86. Her will transferred the estate to the Federal government for use as a diplomatic/presidential retreat. However, even before her death Mar-a-Lago National Historic Site had been established (on January 16, 1969) by order of the Secretary of the Interior and turned over the National Park Service for administration on October 21, 1972. Mar-a-Lago was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

In 1980, the same year that Mar-a-Lao was designated a National Historic Landmark, Congress returned the estate to the Post Foundation. If it isn’t immediately clear why, consider for a moment how expensive it is to maintain and provide presidential-grade security for a place like that. Yikes!

The December 23, 1980, delisting may have been the end of the Mar-a-Lago National Historic Site, but it was not the end of the Mar-a-Lago story. Donald Trump bought the place in 1985, gave it a massive renovation and upgrade (adding, among other things, a 20,000 square-foot ballroom), and used it as one of his private residences until 1995. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley honeymooned there in 1994.

In 1995, Trump converted the estate into the posh Mar-a-Lago Club. If you need to ask what it costs to belong, you cannot afford it.

Here is how the Mar-a-Lago Club advertises itself:

Elegant. Imposing. Legendary.

The Mar-a-Lago Club sits royally amid 20 valuable acres of manicured lawns, vibrant gardens and sweeping sea-to-lake vistas. A National Historic Landmark, the former Marjorie Merriweather Post estate maintains its position as a charter member on the VIP list of places and people that established Palm Beach as a winter haven for the elite many decades ago. With the creative genius of Donald J. Trump and a lot of tender, loving care, the 126 rooms have been fully renovated and restored to their original splendor.

Naturally, membership at the club has its privileges. The use of world class formal and casual dining, Bridge, Croquet, Tennis (Mar-a-Lago’s 5 clay and one grass court complex is a recipient of the Court of the Year Award from the United States Tennis Court & Track Builders Association), The Trump Spa, The Beach Club and a calendar full of parties, wine tasting dinners, fashion shows and star-studded entertainment throughout the social season are all for the taking.

In the never-to-be-humble opinion of owner Donald Trump, Mar-a-Lago is the single most valuable piece of property in all of Florida.

Traveler trivia: At the zenith of her business career, Marjorie Merriweather Post (full name Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May) had a net worth of $250 million -- a billion dollars in today’s money -- and was the richest woman in America. In the mid-1920s when she built the Mar-a-Lago estate (the largest of her several estates), she was into the second of her four marriages. Her then-husband (1920-1935) was financier Edward F. Hutton, as in E.F. Hutton. Post and Hutton founded various successful companies together, most notably General Foods.

Comments

Bob,

Wow, what a story. Who had the idea of giving this to NPS in the first place, and were there objections to this at the time? Were there tours, etc., during the 8 years that NPS had it? It would be fun to see the brochures and interpretive materials, if any still exist. Thanks for digging up this fascinating episode!

Cheers,
Anne

Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Ph.D.
Historian & Author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History
Chapel Hill, NC

What's funny is that this may have not been a bad thing as it is still a NHL with easements granted to the National Trust for Historic Preservations.

It is one the only sites of its knid still left and is in great shape.

Well, Anne, you've asked some good questions, but I'm afraid I can't answer any of them to your satisfaction without doing a lot more research. I'm willing to delve more deeply into the Mar-a-Lago story (right after I get back from Alaska, that is), but perhaps there's somebody out there in Travelerland who already has the inside scoop. Can anybody out there answer Anne's questions?

Chris, I strongly agree that National Register listing and National Historic Landmark designation are a good thing in this case. Though it turned out that Mar-a-Lago can't be a national park, it's a one-of-a-kind historic resource and a significant part of America's story.

According to the National Park Service, Mar-a-Lago National Historic Site never had a visible staff presence from the National Park Service and was never opened to the public. Unfortunately, the endowment left by Ms. Marjorie Merriweather Post for purposes of maintaining and operating the site proved to be insufficient for that purpose - and this was a major factor in the decision to delist this Unit. So sadly, you won't ever find a Mar-a-Lago National Historic Site NPS Brochure at a garage sale somewhere....

There is an A&E show called, "Americas Castles" that has video and narration of Mar-a-Lago. It is wonderful and worth the dvd if you missed the show.

California State Parks managed to make a go out of it with Hearst Castle - William Randolph Hearst's estate near San Simeon. The Hearst family donated it to the state with the stipulation that they could have limited use of the grounds for family retreats. They charge admission and this was one of the parks that was supposed to have been kept operating during the current budget mess because it does turn a profit.