• Mon
  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 11:37am

Inside Donald's billion-dollar mansion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am

No sooner has Donald Trump stepped from his sleek red Ferrari than he has spotted something he doesn't like. As he is keen to point out, when you're selling a mansion for US$125 million - in Hong Kong dollars, that's just small change short of $1 billion - the handle on the front door just has to look right.

'Hey, Shawn, get that doorknob changed will you?' he calls over to his director of special projects, Shawn McCabe, gesturing at the seemingly inoffensive sliver of wrought iron. 'That's the old one that was here before, it's gotta go,' he explains.

It may seem a minor detail but then Maison de l'Amitie is the most expensive home ever to hit the American property market and Trump, 59, is the most powerful and particular real estate baron in the country - or, as he would no doubt assert, the world.

Having snapped up the beachfront estate for a shade below US$42 million at a bankruptcy auction just over a year ago, he has lavished US$25 million on its renovation, slapped US$83 million on the price-tag and put it back up for sale. 'If you're going to think anything, think big,' his mantra goes.

But this place isn't just big. It is, in Trump-speak, 'yoooge!' The 68,000 sqft French Regency-style house stands on about three manicured hectares of prime waterfront on the barrier island of Palm Beach, Florida - the nation's most affluent enclave and a playground of the rich and famous, where size matters.

'The person who buys this will be someone who's extraordinarily rich, who wants the best house anywhere in the world, in the best location,' says Trump. He corrects himself a split second later. 'Well, the best house and best location after mine,' he adds, referring to Mar-a-Lago, his 110,000 sqft home and private club a couple of kilometres down the road.

Built in 1989, Maison de l'Amitie went on the market at the end of 2004 after its previous owner, health-care mogul Abe Gosman, filed for bankruptcy. It had only three bedrooms in the main house at that point, with the rest of it given over to features including an art gallery, gymnasium, hair salon and entertainment rooms perfect for Gosman's champagne-laced charity galas and high-society dinners.

Trump wanted more emphasis on living space - more bedrooms and bathrooms, something a little more practical for family life while still leaving impressively scaled reception areas.

'So I basically gutted the entire house right down to the steel and rebuilt it in its entirety. It's an amazing thing - here we have the richest community in the world and the house that's beyond anything,' he says. Other than Mar-a-Lago, he reminds me, lest I had forgotten.

Now, Maison de l'Amitie has nine bedrooms and nine bathrooms in the main house, with a sea view from every room, and a further eight bedrooms in the pool-house, tennis house (the dilapidated tennis court that used to be adjacent has been ripped out) and two-storey gatehouse.

Even with more rooms, the interior proportions are still vast. The bathrooms are so large that if you set the taps in the Roman tub running and then launch an onward expedition to the sink to brush your teeth, it is possible you may not complete the journey back in time to prevent an overflow. The shower, big enough for a (small) elephant, might be a safer bet - unless someone's already holding a party in it. Trump obligingly steps into it to pose for a photograph, then bustles out again. 'Now you can say you've seen Donald Trump in the shower,' he jokes, before striding off to the next room.

The property's ceilings are 12 metres nigh and there are nine huge, glass-domed skylights. The front hallway appears to rival the 18th fairway at the nearby Trump International Golf Club and the crescent-shaped conservatory that wraps for hundreds of metres around the rear of the house could easily be mistaken for the Palm House at Kew Gardens - complete with the palm trees.

With the Florida sunshine in mind, he had the pre-existing outdoor swimming pool lengthened and widened to a near Olympic-sized extravaganza. 'Now that's what you call a pool, right?' he asks, rhetorically.

Given his well-known taste in interior design - which might be described as brassy if it wasn't for the fact that it usually involved so much gold - Maison de l'Amitie's neutral palette comes as a pleasant surprise.

'He really restrained himself,' says Tim McDaniel, Trump's assistant and head of security at Mar-a-Lago.

The walls are painted white throughout. 'I didn't want to have colours because anyone who buys this for US$125 million, no matter what I do, will change it,' Trump accepts. While the floors are marble, they are in subtle shades of cream and pale orange, and the only signs of any lions' heads and gargoyles are on the newly restored fountain and concrete urns in the red-brick driveway.

The gardens are graceful with deep pink bougainvillaea, busy lizzies in pinks and reds and strangler-fig trees that shade an ornamental pool at the front.

The project has taken a year and involved around 200 workers. Marble for the floors came from Italy and South America, cocina - or coral-stone - paving from Costa Rica, and onyx from Zimbabwe, though on the whole materials and labour were sourced through local firms. Trump says he likes to help the local economy.

Last year's hurricane season caused delays. The electricity was knocked out for two weeks following Hurricane Wilma in October, and there was pressure on supplies after hundreds of thousands of homes across southern Florida suffered damage.

'It doesn't matter if you've got ten bucks, or a million bucks and the second name Trump - if there's no concrete available, there's no concrete available,' says McCabe.

'The hurricane put us back here by a couple of months.'

Kendra Todd - a 27-year-old real estate entrepreneur who in 2005 became the first female winner of Trump's television show in the US, The Apprentice - was ostensibly placed in charge of overseeing the renovation project, though her role was possibly not all it was cracked up to be.

Trump, who was the master planner, concedes that she is only 'involved in the sale a little bit', which suggests that she may not have spent as much time in a hard hat as fans anticipated. But he does not seem disappointed in his new recruit: 'She's been very good, very solid,' he insists.

He likes to think that people buy his properties for what they are, not just because they come with his name attached. 'People say my projects are great - and they are great,' he says. 'But a lot of people give me too much credit for my name. I think a house should market itself. This one does.'

In fact, it markets itself so well, he admits that he had to talk himself out of keeping it. That was presumably before he remembered that he already lives in the best house in America.

Buyers are already 'hot' for Maison de l'Amitie, even before it's finished, he says. The builders are finishing off and the dust sheets are still down, which is just as well for the carpets' sake as he has come straight from a round of golf and still has his spiked shoes on.

'No matter what price I get - and I wouldn't take less - even US$125 million is turning out to be cheap. In three years I'll look at myself and say: 'How stupid was I to sell it for that?' You'd never be allowed to build a house this big right now, you could never build this close to the ocean.'

The record for the most lucrative house sale in America is held by one of his former neighbours, Revlon magnate Ron Perelman, who sold his 3.6-hectare oceanfront estate in Palm Beach for US$91 million in 2004.

Perelman had bought the mansion, named Casa Apava, 10 years earlier for US$11.4 million.

Howard Lorber, chief executive of the real estate firm Prudential Douglas Elliman, through whom Maison de l'Amitie is listed for sale, believes that Trump's asking price is realistic. A property less than one-third of the size down the ever-so-slightly-less-ritzy south end of the island fetched US$85 million last year, he says.


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