Upstairs, we toured several main bedrooms. John and Mabel had adjoining rooms, like most wealthy, high-class couples. John was a great fan of Napoleon Bonaparte, and had his room decorated in the Napoleonic style, with Empire mahogany beds and even a portrait of Napoleon’s sister. His bathroom was done up in pink marble, with the tub carved out of a single block. Robert Webb was again hired to put a faux marble finish on the toiled to match. Supposedly, John boasted to him that he would be the first man in Florida to use such a bath. Webb said, “Well, Mr. Ringling, I’ve actually been sleeping in your tub for the last two weeks.”
Mabel’s room was far more feminine and simpler, though I enjoyed several fun touches. Instead of paper, Webb hung the walls with linen painted in thin pinstripes and added punctuation marks in the little grooves between her ceiling beams. Her bathtub also had five knobs, enabling her to access hot and cold salt water as well as fresh water.
On the other side of Mabel’s hallway wall, leading to John’s game room, our docent told us the Ringilngs had a large, walk-in vault that included a rack capable of holding hundreds of bottles of wine and spirits. Since it was the height of Prohibition, this is where their liquor was usually kept, though the Ringlings and their guests were never without plenty, even in the middle of the night. Through the use of annunciator buttons connected to a giant board in the kitchen, guests could order up a martini and a ham sandwich if they felt peckish at three in the morning.
Ca’ d’Zan goes up two more floors, not counting the Belvedere Tower, which rises six stories, but we were only able to see the first two. The grounds and gardens are open to all visitors, however, which are no less worth seeing. Mabel Ringling founded the Sarasota Garden Club, serving as its first president, and her rose garden is a sight to behold even when not in full bloom.
The Ringlings’ passion for art collecting is no less apparent outside than in. Their art museum surrounds a courtyard full of sculptures, originally purchased for a Ritz Carlton John had in the works, and various pieces sprinkle the gardens and lawns. Some statues, like the couples in Mabel’s rose garden, are exactly where the Ringlings left them. Some have been moved, like the Dwarf Guard of caricatures from the Comedia dell’Arte we found in a bamboo copse at the side of the visitor’s center. In the fifties, this garden connected the art museum to the building that housed the historic Aslo Theater before both it and the theater moved in 2006. The statue of Venus adorning the pool has been moved about several times as well, before returning to her rightful place. Some of the statues, however, the staff weren’t sure about, like the one of Marcus Aurelius standing just outside the main house as though dropped in the lawn as an afterthought.
In the end, for all the house’s majesty, it was quirks like that which made me love it. Thanks to Isabel Lower, Erica Bacon, and the rest of the museum staff for a delightful visit. We definitely plan on going back and bringing friends. If you are anywhere near Sarasota, I highly recommend dropping in. You won’t regret it.
Picture Courtesy of the Ringling Museum.