When my family and I visited the Ringling Museum last July, Isabel Lower from their marketing department was good enough to arrange a tour of John Ringling’s summer home on the property, Ca’ d’Zan (pronounced Cadazan).
After touring Europe for nearly twenty-five years for their circus, John and Mabel Ringling began construction on Ca’ d’Zan in 1924. They had fallen in love with Venetian architectures, particularly the Ducal Palace, Ca’ d’Oro, and the Grunwald Hotel. They hired famous New York architect Dwight James Baum to design the house based on Mabel’s instructions. In fact, Mabel was so involved that Mr. Baum labeled the house “The Residence of Mrs. John Ringling” on his plans. The house was completed in 1926, and cost around 1.5 million dollars all told.
We were early, so we strolled around outside on the veranda for a little, and the exterior of the house is almost as interesting as the interior. Lucious, is perhaps the first word that came to mind. The house is built of terracotta blocks, which give it an almost salmon color, carved and crenelated to within an inch of its life. Aside from the solarium, there is no clear glass in any of the panes. Each window has multiple panes in teal, purple, gold, and fuchsia. The veranda is inlaid with multicolored marble in a chevron pattern. With the ocean breeze coming off the bay, we half expected Gatsby to swing open the double doors, stroll over to one of the wicker chairs, and order a mint julep. Since the Ringlings built on Sarasota Bay, John Ringling often docked his pleasure yacht right off the veranda, so one could literally walk out the back door and onto the yacht.
The First Floor
Our docent was delightful and treated the tour as though we were one of the many guests for the Ringling’s legendary house parties. Visiting the Ringlings was like going to a summer resort. You had access to their club’s golf course in Sarasota. You could take your cocktails on the veranda, go sailing in Mr. Ringling’s yacht, or take a gondola from Mrs. Ringling’s private dock. They even had a saltwater swimming pool, which was in the process of being restored when we visited. The restoration was completed at the end of July, 2018.
Upon arriving at the station in town, we would have been picked up in John’s original Roles Royce, which he bought of a Russian Czar. We entered through double doors decorated in twenty-four-carat gold leaf. The foyer felt like a throne room, all rich red carpet and Louis XIV gilt armchairs.
The foyer opened onto the central parlor or court, whose ceiling reached to the second floor. In typical Venetian style, the second-floor bedrooms opened out onto a balcony running around the court. This is where their guests spent most of their time indoors, whether playing chess or cards at the gaming tables or being entertained. The Ringling often brought acts from their circus in to entertain their guests. Mabel loved music, so one of the centerpieces of this room was a rosewood and ebony inlaid Steinway grand piano. John Ringling also had an Aeolian pipe organ installed in the main court, whose pipes were hidden in one wall hung with portraits of the Ringlings.
John Ringling’s portrait shows him standing with one hand in his pocket. According to our docent, Will Rogers was a good friend and often stayed in their fourth-floor guest room. When he saw the portrait, he said, “That’s the only time I’ve seen you with your hand in your own pocket, John.”
One thing I noticed while we went through the court was that, just as the Ringling’s couldn’t simply have a plain house or a plain veranda, or even a plain piano, they couldn’t have plain ceiling. I found myself constantly looking up throughout the tour to find intricate artwork. The court ceiling was carved in a grid pattern, with each section a small canvas for a medieval-esque painting. Upon passing through to the ballroom, the ceiling became a rich tapestry of gold and dancing figures. The piece was painted by Hungarian artist Andrew Pogany, depicting various couples from across the globe dancing in their own style. He said of the work that each couple is dancing different steps but they all are moving to the same rhythm.
After the ballroom, we retraced our steps through the court into the breakfast room, which was full of startlingly green décor. Apparently, Mabel’s favorite color was green, so all the breakfast room chairs were painted to match and John had green glass crystals imported for the chandelier. This room was also their informal dining room.
The kitchen was a spacious, modern (for the time) two-room affair, with both a gas and an electric range, and three refrigerators, accessed on both sides. Mrs. Ringling reportedly helped with cooking, and had a different dish for her family to eat off of each day of the year. The gentleman’s tap room was also connected to the kitchen, complete with a bar John Ringling purchased wholesale from a restaurant in St. Louis and had shipped in pieces to the house.
Passing through the kitchen took us to the formal dining room, as rich as the foyer. Depending on how many guests the Ringlings had, they could extend the table out into the foyer through a set of double doors to make room. Again, I had to look up and was not disappointed; the ceiling was a beautiful display of dark wood and gilded leaves in a Islamic star design, echoing the wall décor. Our docent informed us, however, that rather than real wood and gold inlay, artist Robert Webb created the ceiling based on Mabel Ringling’s collection of cameos out of paint and molded plaster.
John Ringling wanted to have very modern convenience in his house, so he also had an original Otis elevator installed by Al James Otis himself. It is still operational, but we took the spiraling marble stairs to the second floor instead. But we will get to that next time.
Photo courtesy of the Ringling Museum.