Once again, we spent our weekend avoiding the summer swelter. That meant limiting our outdoor activities to morning walks and evening cookouts, spending the better part of the day in Cloud 9’s air-conditioned comfort. It even seemed like the birds took a break. Jon noted on our Sunday morning walk that there wasn’t as much birdsong as the day before.
We spent our indoor time finishing Season 1 of the Discovery+ streaming series, Queen of Versailles Reigns Again, an examination of a wealthy family’s trials and tribulations as they build their mega-dream home. The reality series follows Jackie Siegel, a former Mrs. Florida, and her family as they spare no expense to finish building “the largest single-family home in America,” a 90-000-square-foot mansion inspired by the Versailles palace in France.
The American version features six kitchens, a 35-car garage, a 150-person dining room, a grand ballroom with gemstone-encrusted floors and a British pub. At her husband’s insistence, Jackie also struggles to install a Benihana hibachi-style grill, despite the best advice against doing so from her contractors and designers. She says it’s “something that no one else in the world has in their house.” And for good reason: Without large and expensive commercial-grade ventilation equipment, an in-house Benihana kitchen would cause the entire home to smell like steak.
The series is a follow-up to the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, in which filmmaker Lauren Greenfield painted a portrait of the family—Jackie, her timeshare mogul husband David, their eight kids, and numerous pets—and their efforts to make their Florida dream home a reality. The 2008 recession ground construction to a halt as the sprawling household was forced to tighten its belt. The 19-member domestic staff was reduced to four; the private jet was sold and the family was forced to fly commercial; and no one could understand why their budget rental car didn’t include a driver.
Their vision for Versailles contains many of the standard amenities you might expect from the ultra rich—a movie theater, a bowling alley, a mother-in-law suite near the laundry room in the basement. But it also contains a collection of Old-World antiques that they spent 20 years and $30 million acquiring. In the documentary reboot, the Siegels are once again living the lifestyle of the super rich. Gone are their days of commercial travel; after years of construction stagnation, Jackie is determined to finish the house in time to host a New Year’s Eve bash; and through it all, they still appear blissfully unaware that it was the excesses of the real Versailles that helped lead to a peasant uprising.
As the cameras scan the myriad antiques they’ve acquired, the objects’ real prices are revealed—a $184,000 chandelier curled up on the floor, a $30,000 dollar sculpture of a trio of goddesses, a $100,000 stained glass window of a peacock “perfect for the morning kitchen”—mostly “neoclassical kitcsh” imported from Europe. This desire on the part of the American wealthy to link themselves to European nobility by acquisition is nothing new. After all, America’s mansions-turned-museums are brimming with Old World art, collected by long-ago heirs and heiresses.
The particular aesthetic that the Siegels covet—the suits of armor, the off-putting oil portraiture, the acres of marble—speaks to a desire to recreate a bygone European ideal. In a meeting with designers and contractors, Jackie tells the group that she intends Versailles to stay in her family for generations, “So your future generations will have to help my kids to do all the updating and upkeep on the house.” In other words, her vision of the future includes her descendants still living in the same castle, with the offspring of her employees on hand to tend to their needs.
The real tragedy of Jackie and David Siegel is their inability to recognize that they’re trying to build something that is buckling under the weight of its excesses. For example, we learn early on that they even bought Michelangelo’s quarry in Italy so that all of the marble on the house’s exterior would be uniform, yet the builders were forced to remove much of the façade after it began falling off of the building. As they tried to create a home based on an old European palace, they managed to craft something incredibly fragmented, disorderly, and unstable.
Maybe they’ll finally finish the house in time for David’s 88th birthday next year. Until then, they have demonstrated that their version of Versailles has a lot in common with some of the most admired architecture of the Old World: It’s so priceless that it turns out to be worthless.