As soon as the 45th president of the United States takes office, he will be confronted with a quandary: Where to hold a big fancy party? The White House is old and its rooms are small, which in 2009 led President Obama to host the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in a temporary pavilion erected on the South Lawn. President Trump will never agree to host a dignitary in such squalor; he’s going to need a ballroom.
This is an urgent issue. Eater’s Helen Rosner recently pinpointed the way that event crystallized one of Trump’s most deeply felt and specific objections to the Obama years. “Do you remember when I saw a state dinner — and it’s a tent!” Trump complained during a campaign event last summer. “Which is actually unsafe, you know, canvas — it’s a tent on the White House lawn … Which looks like hell.” A month later, the Post’s Cindy Adams, a longtime friend of the Trump family, hinted that he would move quickly to solve that major deficit in national resources: “The White House lacks big party space,” she pointed out. “Galas scatter through separate rooms. Watch for a quickly built Trump White House ballroom …” And in fact the White House is hardly unchanged since it was built: It was reconstructed several times. Around 1903, Teddy Roosevelt added the West Wing. The whole house was gut-renovated in the 1940s, after a floor nearly collapsed under Margaret Truman’s piano.
Even considering Trump’s construction credentials, it may not be possible to get a suitable space erected in time for the inauguration, but he will probably want it ready before he hosts his first state dinner (Vladimir Putin?). He has formidable experience on this issue: As he wrote in his 2011 book Time to Get Tough, “If there’s one thing I know how to build, it’s a grand ballroom. At my private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, I built what many consider to be the single greatest ballroom in the world.” That’s probably accurate: Another contender, the Grand Ballroom at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna is a little cramped and cold, when you get right down to it. Trump’s southern estate has been described as Versailles-like, though it may actually lag a bit in grandiosity behind the actual Florida Versailles, the Orlando-area megamegamansion owned by Trump fanboy and time-share magnate David Siegel.
So where does the man who has already built the planet’s most fabulous ballroom turn for inspiration, other than (as he so often does) inward? Well, he might look beyond his admiration of the present Russian ruler, back to Peter the Great, the 18th-century czar who founded St. Petersburg, modernized the empire, expanded the military, and had extravagant taste in palace design. Peter and the Donald have a lot in common, including a love for grandiose infrastructure projects, a tendency to name things after themselves, and a fondness for torture. Peter stigmatized Eastern-looking men by imposing a tax on robes and beards, a technique Trump might want to try in his battle against Islam. Trump is assembling his cabinet of deplorables; Peter had his cabinet of curiosities, the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, where he collected accidents of nature, both real and invented.
Peter also idealized the culture and leadership of a rival nation — France — and in the architectural sphere, his Francophilia led him to adopt a competitive rococo, based on the premise anything you can gild, I can gild brighter. Peterhof, Peter’s suburban palace outside of St. Petersburg, contains a ballroom so richly festooned with golden wreaths, golden foliage, golden candelabra, golden putti, cartouches, urns, shields, and moldings that its Franco-Russian splendor could serve as the model for a whole new American style: neo-czarism.
The neo-czarist ballroom will be a double-height structure, with light shining through two stories of ample windows, ricocheting off burnished parquet floors, and mingling with the reflections from white walls and reflective gilt. (For security reasons, the building’s shell will be made of bunker-grade, high-density reinforced concrete; sunshine will be provided by high-voltage floodlights.) The ceiling requires a fresco, preferably foreshortened allegorical figures frolicking in the clouds, with the wind of greatness fluttering through their (modesty-enforcing, Pence-specified) robes. Sharp-eyed gala attendees will doubtlessly be able to pick out the likenesses of Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr. among the painted hosts. President Trump might find the white and egg-yellow neoclassicism of the Peterhof exterior to be a bit wan; he will no doubt want to encase his windowless rococo cocoon in a cladding of black granite and bronze-tinted glass. That glowering, high-gloss classiness will contrast nicely with the pallor of the president’s frumpy old house.
An interior opulent enough to do honor to the new leader and the resurgent nation he leads is not easy to come by, especially in short order. In its recent years of un-greatness, America has allowed baroque craftsmanship to languish. Fortunately, Trump has two secret weapons. The first is that he is, himself, an expert on architectural ornamentation: In 1980, he demolished the 1929 Bonwit Teller Building to make way for Trump Tower, and though he had promised to preserve the Art Deco reliefs of dancing women and donate them to the Metropolitan Museum, in the end he jackhammered them, certifying them as “without artistic merit.” (He later referred to them as “junk.”)
Second, the Peterhof ballroom is already a fake: The original palace was practically leveled during World War II, and laboriously rebuilt over decades. Later, another gargantuan task consumed Russian restorers: reproducing the lost 18th-century marvel the Amber Room. But that work was completed in 2003, freeing workers up to export their talents. Surely Putin would be willing to send over a planeload of gilders and plaster virtuosos to fashion a new Peterhof West?
That leaves one remaining real-estate issue: location. In his hunt for suitable sites, Trump might naturally gravitate toward areas of the White House grounds that do not interest him. Ripping out Michelle Obama’s 1,100-square foot vegetable garden and her husband’s beloved basketball court might be tempting, but that still wouldn’t provide anywhere near the 20,000 square feet required for a true Mar-a-Lago-quality facility. Besides, it would be mean hiding the beautiful new structure next to a clump of stupid trees. No, far better to make a bold statement and build the new national ballroom exactly where the Obamas placed their tent for the 2009 state dinner: right in the middle of the South Lawn. True, a 100-by-200-foot shiny, black two-story box slicing across the grass would obliterate the view corridor, hiding the White House from the Washington Monument. But when you think about it, that might actually be a good thing.