A spy expert's jaw-dropping lair ballroom
H. Keith Melton is a man of espionage. He is the author of more than 25 nonfiction works on covert activities (including "The Ultimate Spy Book") and by far the world's largest private collector of spy memorabilia. Even his spectacular Boca Raton house has the air of hiding secrets. Nestled at the end of a prosperous but rather generic cul-de-sac in a gated south Florida subdivision, Melton's house hardly stands out at curbside from the neighborhood. But looks, as any clandestine operative knows, can be creatively deceiving.
To meet the 68-year-old author in his lair is to be ushered not just into his home but also into his powerful preoccupations. The room where we meet, for instance, was once a staid ballroom. No longer: The walls, the ceilings, even the wet bar are honed from gleaming, hand-hammered stainless steel stretching across 1,350 square feet. Metal craftsmen, recruited from the commercial side of the construction trade, fashioned the bolts holding the silvery sheets in place from the same metal. "The design inspiration for this room is the nose cone of a zeppelin," Melton informs me, as we sink into plush black leather chairs designed after those that once graced Walt Disney's office.
This room is Keith Melton's homage to the machine age, the late-industrial-age period between the world wars that permeated art and design as Art Deco clung to its last vestige of aesthetic popularity. The Melton nostalgia version took two years and millions to craft. The author is a man of particular tastes: Room accents include serving trays from a 1930s Douglas DC-3 airliner, a WWII-era coffin trolley turned coffee table, and reclaimed jet navigator chairs used as bar stools. And this is just one of the 19 eye-popping rooms tucked inside the 7,700-square-foot home.
A U.S. Naval Academy-trained engineer, Melton has not only written about spying but also contributed to 53 documentaries and consults as the technical tradecraft historian at the U.S. government's Interagency Training Center. He's also a former McDonald's franchisee (one of the corporation's largest stateside owners before he sold Melton Management in 2010) and, with his Hollywood production partner Craig Piligian, a film and television backer for projects like "American Chopper."
But his collection is his consuming, four-decades-long passion. If the house itself is devoted to the interwar era, the collection is all about the Cold War. It is stunning to contemplate: an assemblage of some 9,000 physical artifacts—including the ice ax used to kill Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the ashes of superspy Aleksandr Orlov, who famously relocated the Spanish Republic's gold reserves to the Soviet Union—and more than 8,600 literary volumes representing the second-largest intelligence library in the world, dwarfed only by another private collection. The artifacts rotate among five museums, including the International Spy Museum in D.C., where he is a board member; two private displays within the walls of Langley, available only to Central Intelligence Agency staffers; and the Spy Exhibit (in collaboration with the CIA and FBI), which is currently open to the public at the Discovery Channel's Discovery Times Square in New York City. The permanent home of all these on-loan pieces lies next to the house, in Melton's guesthouse turned private museum.
But it is hardly the only museum on the property. "The house itself," my host informs me, "should be art." It is, in fact, a personal treasure trove that takes hours to appreciate, a rigorous hands-on lesson in architecture, espionage, and the art of collecting. We shuffle past an elevator salvaged from New York City's Chanin Building, sit on original Warren McArthur chairs (which were recently re-created by Restoration Hardware), and stroll past sconces pulled from Los Angeles' Argyle Hotel (before it was rechristened the Sunset Tower). On the ground floor, two en suite guest rooms display separate themes: one a near-perfect replica of Howard Hughes' 1940s-era master bedroom and the other inspired by the S.S. Normandie, with circular lookout windows.
We climb the winding stairs, past a sleek black entryway sculpture of dancing partners jutting up nearly three stories from a ground-floor fountain, and enter a parlor clad completely in copper, the metallurgical complement to the ballroom. To ensure that the gleaming metal wouldn't corrode, Melton drenched the copper pieces in linseed oil after buffing them with steel wool. That process alone took six weeks.
On the top floor, the historian reveals his favorite space: a fully encapsulated 2,500-square-foot master suite, replete with office, master bath, dressing rooms, and balcony, that doubles as a panic room in the case of hurricane or other disaster.
Melton, who formerly inhabited a gargoyle-bedecked castle outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, purchased this property in 1997 for $995,000. Built in 1985 by an Italian consular officer who threw lavish parties, the diplomatic compound came with an additional perk: a separate three-bedroom staff house that boarded bodyguards. It was the guardhouse that lured Melton.
"It became the genesis of the idea to create a stand-alone library and museum within the compound," explains Melton. He toured the property at noon on a Saturday and by three o'clock was in contract; he closed 11 days later at full asking price. Since then, he has been renovating, a 15-year process that is not yet complete. (He is now turning his attention to the backyard.)
If the main house channels Metropolis, the museum embodies something completely different: a Soviet-intelligence meeting space. The warm space overflows with espionage books and hard-won Cold War-era collectibles. The walls, which hide 37 secret passageways, were painted the same muted red used by the Kremlin's counterintelligence agency. Metal is not to be found save for vintage weapons adorning the wooden walls. As we slip through one of the camouflaged concealments, Melton tells me this private showcase hosts about 20 guests each year, all from the intelligence community. (I am the first "civilian" visitor to this covert lair.) Upstairs, the collection continues as endless rows of artifacts stretch across the square footage, hanging on the walls or sitting on the floor waiting to be cataloged.
Everything has a story. The Trotsky ice ax, now on display at the exhibit in New York, was acquired through a vigorous negotiation process that stretched on for three years and concluded on a bridge crossing between the U.S. and Mexico. Melton handed a cash-stuffed suitcase across the border for the infamous instrument of assassination. Shadowing the museum's threshold is a plaque that once hung on the building of a KGB secret-police station; Melton acquired it from Russian friends in 1991 as the U.S.S.R. dissolved and brick-and-mortar institutions were disassembled. Meandering between the rows, Melton flips a bowler hat upside down, exposing the discreet domed space in which a revolver can—and once did—hide. To keep the covert accessory from sagging, he explains, the sides of the hat were reinforced with metal. "My primary interest is in everything used in covert communication, from concealments to clandestine cameras to stenography, because that's the essence of espionage," he says, slinging the sole of a shoe sideways to expose a hidden recording device—Maxwell Smart would be proud.
Surrounded by the rows of paraphernalia that could double—in some cases, triple—as props for a James Bond film, Melton reveals the secret to his lifestyle: "I don't do this for profit; I do this to preserve history. The worst thing in the world is to have created something so meaningful and have it wind up in a rummage sale."