Rich pickings at Donald Trump's bolthole

Mar-a-Lago, the 17-acre private members’ club in Palm Beach, Florida, bought by Donald Trump in 1985, has just attracted the world’s attention again.

Referred by Trump as his “Southern White House,”, it was where he hosted the Chinese president Xi Jinping, when the pair met for the first time this week.

The 110,000 square feet, Great Gatsby-esque mansion was built in the 1920s by American heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and converted by Mr Trump into both his own private residence and an exclusive private members’ club.

The property contains 126 rooms including a 20,000 sq ft ballroom, 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms as well as a spa, three bomb shelters, five clay tennis courts and a waterfront pool.

The estate is renowned for its lavish decor including ballroom walls inlaid with US$7 million worth of gold leaf and four gold-plated sinks in the ladies’ toilets, each costing US$25,000.

The Trump family maintains private quarters in a separate closed-off area of the house and grounds. The president has been criticised for spending too much time there since taking office, racking up an alleged $3m bill for each visit.

The club has nearly 500 paying members and admits between 20 and 40 new members each year. High-profile members include oil executive Bill Koch, NFL coach Bill Belichick and talk show host Howie Carr.

According to CNBC, new members are currently required to pay a non-refundable $200,000 initiation fee as well as $14,000 a year plus tax in annual fees.

But with that comes a chance to mingle with the president as well as the high-powered delegations that visit him – something that has outraged Mr Trump’s political opponents.

The president’s use of Mar-a-Lago could be said to correlate closely with the vision of the house’s original owner. When she died in 1973, Merriweather Post bequeathed Mar-a-Lago to the US nation, envisioning it as a winter retreat for American presidents and foreign dignitaries.

But with maintenance and tax costing up to $3m a year, the federal government returned the house in 1980.

Merriweather-Post’s daughters then put the estate on the market, attracting Mr Trump’s attention who, in the early 1980s was looking to buy a house in Palm Beach for his family.

Q&A: Lucy Barnard expands on Donald Trump’s close ties with his Florida estate:

How did Mr Trump buy Mar-a-Lago?

First he put in an offer of US$25 million to buy the estate, which was rejected. Then, according to The Washington Post, he decided to “play hardball” and put in a bid of $2m to buy the land between Mar-a-Lago and the ocean, which had been earlier sold by Post’s foundation for $346,000. By saying he intended to build a house on the land which would block the estate’s beach view, Mr Trump put other buyers off and the price kept falling. Eventually he agreed to a deal for less than $8m.

When did it become a private members’ club?

Mr Trump used the estate as a private residence between 1985 and 1995. Then as his financial difficulties began to mount in the early 1990s, he announced he would sub-divide the estate into a number of lots where he intended to build “mini mansions”. The plan was rejected by the Palm Beach authority. Soon afterwards Mr Trump turned it into a private members’ club.

Does Mr Trump own Mar-a-Lago?

The estate is owned by The Trump Organization. Mr Trump resigned his position as chief executive when he became president and put his assets into a trust. The company is now being run by his two sons.

Is the estate profitable?

According to financial disclosures, Mr Trump filed as part of his presidential campaign the hotel made a profit of $15.6m in 2015.

lbarnard@thenational.ae

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