There are seven women in my book group that’s been meeting for several years. We all live within a block of each other, and four of the six were either my clients or bought one of my listings when they came to the neighborhood. We take turns picking the book to read, and recently Norman Eisen’s book, The Last Palace, was a recent choice. And while I didn’t suggest it, it’s a perfect choice for anyone who is into houses and putting together complicated real estate deals.
Eisen opens his book with a phone call to his mother from Air Force One. He is headed to Prague, where she grew up, with then President Obama and has just learned he’ll be appointed the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. This means he will get to live in the splendid palace that Jewish industrialist, Otto Petschek, built in the 1930’s. It was Petschek's testament to optimism about the future – that of his family and of his faith in the endurance of Czech democracy.
In The Last Palace, Eisen weaves a beautifully written story with some amazing characters. First, there was his mother, who left her own home in Prague as a teenager with dreams of medical school -- on a train headed for Auschwitz. Then there was the erudite Nazi general who lived in the palace during World War II, leaving behind some chilling reminders of his tenure, but managing to save Prague and the palace from German bombers. Lawrence Steinhardt, the first US Ambassador after the war, fell in love with the house. He must have had the real estate gene, because he did a brilliant job of brokering the sale of Petschek’s palace to the United States. Since the late 1940’s, this amazing property has served as the United States ambassador’s residence.
One of my favorite parts of the story covered Shirley Temple Black’s time as Ambassador during the Prague Spring in 1968. She’d come a long way from The Good Ship Lollipop! Who knew she'd grow to become such a gutsy, formidable diplomat?
Eisen’s research on the actual building of the home itself was thorough and had some lessons for people who are building and renovating homes today:
- Petschek didn’t pay a lot of attention to the actual architects’ plans until the house was well on its way, then he made some major changes that more than doubled the already astronomical construction costs.
- Instead of your normal rectangular palace, this one would be curved – a decision Petschek made after he decided he didn’t like the flat front that had already been constructed.
- Throughout the process, he totally micromanaged his contractors.
- When the home was almost completed, he decided that a huge (and very deep) basement swimming pool would be a great amenity, with timing that made the pool almost impossible to install and extremely expensive.
- He didn’t pay a lot of attention to the budget for the house, and toward the end he began to run out of money, and he had a whole lot to begin with.
I finished this book wanting more, especially more of Eisen’s mother’s story. What did it take for her to get from Prague to Auschwitz to Israel to the United States? Did she ever make it to Prague to visit her son while he was Ambassador? I do hope Ambassador Eisen gives us a Part 2!