Around the Ringling you can find examples of handmade wrought iron grilles, but mysteries remain about their origin and symbolism. “The wrought iron is a wonderful aspect to both of the historic buildings, but we still have many questions that have not been answered with documents as of yet,” says Ron McCarty, keeper of the Ca’d’Zan.
Wrought Iron is a form of iron obtained by smelting; in Ancient times it was then worked (or wrought) into a usable mass. In Europe during the Middle Ages, wrought iron was used in decorative screens on churches and decorative body armor. In the 19th century it began to be used in building construction, as its strength made it superior to cast iron beams. As steel replaced iron as the building material of choice, the use of wrought iron became mostly decorative in the 20th century, as we see at The Ringling.
Iron Window Grilles of the Ca’ d’Zan
Decorative wrought iron elements were popular additions to the lavish mansions of the American elite in the 1800s. The Ringlings aspired to the great houses of families like the Vanderbilts and Astors in designing the Ca’ d’Zan, including custom ironwork. They were also eager to incorporate pieces acquired from these New York mansions as they went up for auction in the early 20th century, when these grandiose homes were being demolished to make way for the skyscrapers going up in midtown Manhattan.
Two of the windows that look out from the mansion onto the terrace facing the bay have elaborate iron grilles. They feature a lion and mouse, dragons, and a stylish Ringling “R.” As only two of the first floor windows have these grilles, their purpose was clearly decorative and not for additional security.
Interestingly, the maker of these grilles is unclear. They have been attributed to master metalsmith Cyril Colnik (1871-1958), once called “the Tiffany of wrought-iron artisans,” but as Ron McCarty says, “The history of an object is always growing with additional information to documents it’s history.”
Colnik learned metalsmith in Vienna and Austria, and first came to the US for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He eventually settled in Milwaukee, where many people spoke his native German, and his graceful work, often combining delicate foliage with whimsical creatures, can be seen in many public buildings and private mansions in that city.
Although there are plenty of published references to Colnik working on “the Ringling mansion in Sarasota,” that mansion very well may have been Charles’s! The architectural firm that worked on the Charles Ringling mansion was based in Milwaukee, where Colnik lived, so there may have been a connection there.
Iron Doors of the Ca’ d’Zan
Another top ironworker of the age may have been responsible for the window grilles and the screen that covers the Renaissance-style front door of the Ca’ d’Zan: Samuel Yellin (1885 – 1940) was employed by the architect of the Ca’ d’Zan, Dwight James Baum, for many important commissions around the country, including the Sarasota County Courthouse.
Born in Russia, Yellin became a mastersmith at a young age. He immigrated to the US in the year 1900, and began a metalsmith firm in Philadelphia, which employed 238 men at its peak in 1928, and continues to be operated by his descendants today. Yellin famously said, "There is only one way to make good decorative metalwork and that is with the hammer at anvil."
“Yellin’s archives show that he in fact did this structure in Sarasota," McCarty shared, "But his files corresponding to the dates of Ca’d’Zan were destroyed in a fire.” He pointed out that the front door has the same whimsical aspects noted on the back window grilles, with sea horses and other sea life motifs, so it is possible that Yellin designed both.
Gates of the Gatehouse
During the Ringling's time, the Gatehouse housed the gatekeeper in a small apartment. Later it became the ticket-office of the Museum. Motorists would pay their admission as they drove through the gates.
The gatehouse, and its wrought iron gates, was also designed by Baum. The architect published his design in Pencil Points magazine with an illustration noting that it was for “Mrs John Ringling Mansion.”The design shows plant tendrils climbing around the framework and when closed, a heart design is a dominant feature with the letter "R" for Ringling.
Astor Mansion Doors in the Museum of Art Lobby
Whereas the wrought-iron work discussed so far was custom made for the Ringlings, other iron work in the Museum is an example of spolia, earlier building material and decorative sculpture reused on new monuments. The great doors in the entrance to the Museum of Art were originally from the Astor Mansion in New York that once stood on Fifth Avenue's Millionaire Row. They feature a salamander, the symbol of the Valois kings of France (who ruled from 1328-1589).