The Ringlings had been traveling throughout Europe for nearly 25 years, acquiring circus acts and art. They both greatly admired the architectural style of Venice’s Ducal Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grunwald Hotel. When they decided to build a home in Sarasota, Florida, where they had been winter residents for a number of years, The Ringlings took these palazzi as their inspiration – and Sarasota Bay as their Grand Canal.
The Ringlings hired the famous New York architect Dwight James Baum, to design the home and Owen Burns to build it. However, Mable, who had kept an oilskin portfolio filled with postcards, sketches and photos she had collected during her travels, oversaw every aspect of the construction, from the mixing of the terra cotta to the glazing of the tiles. Indeed, so great was her involvement that the original architectural plans called it “The Residence of Mrs. John Ringling.”
One of America’s wealthiest couples, the Ringlings started building Ca’ d’Zan in 1924 and completed it shortly before Christmas in 1926 at the then princely sum of $1.5 million. Sadly, their happiness there was not to last, for only three years after its completion, Mable died from Addison’s disease and the complications of diabetes.
The 36,000 square-foot house sits on a waterfront site 1,000 feet long and 3,000 feet deep. It is five stories tall and has a full basement. Constructed from terra cotta “T” blocks, concrete and brick, it is covered with stucco and terra cotta and embellished with glazed tile. Decorative tile medallions, balustrades and ornamental cresting in soft red, yellow, green, blue and ivory highlight the pink patina of the stucco and terra cotta exterior.
Originally roofed with 16th century Spanish tiles imported by the builder, the bayfront terrace was made from domestic and imported marble. Ringling kept his yacht, Zalophus, docked there and often entertained celebrities of the Roaring Twenties, including comedian Will Rogers and New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. Today, the terrace hosts weddings, corporate parties and a number of popular gatherings like Yoga on the Terrace.
Inside, the main floor includes living, entertaining and dining areas. The Ringlings private bedrooms as well as five guest bedrooms are found on the second floor along with the servants’ quarters. On the third floor there is a game room and bath. On the fourth floor there is a great beamed guest room and bath with windows on all four sides. At the property’s pinnacle is an 82-foot-high tower with an open-air landing and a high-domed ceiling. Legend has it that John enjoyed taking guests up to the tower to show them his land holdings in Sarasota, which then extended nearly as far as the eye could see.
Ca’ d’Zan is every bit as opulent inside as it is outside. Paintings by Langetti, Sorine, Devouge and Mazo hang on the walls. Displayed in the small butler’s pantry is a collection of silver that was used during formal events. A much larger pantry has a custom-made German silver sink that provided a soft, forgiving surface to protect the fine crystal, china and earthenware from breakage. The cabinetry throughout the pantry displays the extensive collection of china collected during the Ringlings’ world travels. The dining table accommodates 22 chairs. A crystal chandelier from the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel hangs in the living room above a black and white marble tiled floor. There is even an Aeolian organ with 2,289 pipes installed behind curtains in a chamber on the second floor.
When John Ringling died in December of 1936 he bequeathed his estate to the people of Florida, but legal wrangling with his creditors went on for a decade until the property finally passed unencumbered to the state. During this time Ca’ d’Zan remained closed. Finally, in 1946 it was reopened to the public.
But the care that older buildings require was neglected due to a lack of funds, and by the late 90’s, Ca’ d’Zan was in such a state of disrepair it was used as the location for Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion in the 1996 Hollywood remake of Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations.
That same year the mansion was closed so that a comprehensive restoration and conservation project could be undertaken. Much of the marble terrace had to be replaced, balusters and railings along the waterfront were repaired and replaced, as were many of the decorative terracotta ornaments reminiscent of Venice. Even a new roof was installed.
Archival photos were used to determine the original look of each room. Paint samples were used to match the original colors of the walls. Original paintings and furnishings were retrieved from storage and restored. The ceiling murals by Willy Pogany, the set decorator of the Zeigfeld Follies, were restored by a group of international conservators. Original moldings were cleaned and repainted. Carpets and rugs were conserved or replaced. Even clothing from the Ringlings’ wardrobe was returned to closets and drawers. In 2004 and 2005, the home’s original gate house was restored as the entrance of the new Visitor Pavilion, making the welcome visitors receive more authentic and true to the original design.
Finally completed in 2002, at a cost of $15 million, ten times that of the original house, Ca’ d’Zan was happily returned to its former glory and reopened as the grandest mansion on Florida’s Suncoast. Today it stands as one of America’s architectural treasures.