While in Florida this past February, I motored over to Sarasota with Jane and Beth Elliott to tour the mansion that once belonging to John Ringling of the famous Ringling Brothers. Jane and I had visited Al Ringling’s home in Baraboo, Wisconsin and after seeing pictures of beautiful CA’D’ZAN, ever since, I have wanted to see this lovely home.
While I knew the home was beautiful, what I didn’t know, was that there is an entire Ringling complex and sadly way to much to see in one day. We focused our visit on the mansion, and a quick walk through of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Circus museum. We were also able to see some of the gardens and the Wisconsin Railroad Car, the private railroad used by John and his wife Mable Ringling to travel the country for business and pleasure. The grounds are a delight by themselves even without ever entering a building. We took a look at Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden and the Secret Garden and Ringling Burial Site of John and Mable Ringling. We closed down the place oohing and ahhing over the world’s largest miniature circus, crafted over 50 years by Howard Tibbal who made an exact 3/4-inch-to-the-foot scale replica of a circus as it might have looked from 1919 – 1938.
John Ringling was one of five brothers. He helped found the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1884, in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The circus thrived and according to the Ringling website, “In 1889, the brothers made the move from animal-drawn wagons to railroad cars and they became the first circus to truly travel the country. Indeed, by 1890 the New York Times described John, who had started with the circus as a clown, and was now acting as its advance man, scheduling, contracting and booking acts as, “a human encyclopedia on road and local conditions.” Later the Ringling Bros. Circus would cross the country in a 100 rail-car caravan each season. John Ringling was one of the five brothers who owned and operated the circus rightly called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” His success with the circus and entrepreneurial skills helped to make him, in the Roaring Twenties, one of the richest men in America, with an estimated worth of nearly $200 million.”
In 1905, John Ringling married the love of his life, Mable Burton in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was thirty-nine; she was thirty. Ringling Brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey show for $410,000 making them the “Kings of the Show World”. John Ringling expanded his empire investing in real estate and other enterprises, including Madison Square Garden.
Both John and his brother Charles Ringling saw the potential that Florida had to offer and began purchasing land in Sarasota. They both built estates there and in 1911 John and Mable purchased 20 acres of waterfront property there and just a year later in 1912, they began spending winters in what was then a small town. The Ringling website states, “In the 1920s, they became active in the community and purchased more and more real estate. At one time, John and Charles owned more than 25 percent of Sarasota’s total area. In Sarasota, John became a formidable force in the Florida land boom of the 1920s, buying and developing land on the Sarasota Keys, where he hoped to create a fashionable winter resort that would rival the popularity of the state’s East Coast resorts. In 1927, he moved the circus’ winter headquarters of the circus to Sarasota from Bridgeport, Connecticut.”
During her travels with John, Mable fell in love with the grace and grandeur of Venice and the couple hired Dwight James Baum to build their mansion in the Venetian style. Building of their dream home began in 1924 and ended in 1926. The home cost $1.5 million to construct which our guide at the mansion shared is the equivalent of $20.9 million today. Some of the highlights of the house include the lovely solarium, the ballroom which depicts whimsical dancing couples from cultures around the world, and the court where an 1802 Steinway piano and the Aeolian organ provided music for the parties they held. In the court there is also a crystal chandelier that once hung in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. At the back of the house is the amazing terrace that looks onto the bay and where John Ringling once moored his yacht the Zalophus.
One of the richest men in America, by 1925, John Ringling’s wealth was estimated at nearly $200 million! So when John and Mable took a liking to art, they could afford to buy anything they wanted and did, amassing a world class collection which included many of the Masters. We were able to see some of that art in Ca’d’Zan, which means the House of John in a Venetian dialect. John and Mable Ringling were a happy couple that enjoyed travel, art and entertaining in their mansion in Sarasota. John Ringling was heartbroken when Mable, who suffered from diabetes and Addison’s disease, passed away on June 8, 1929. It was a loss from which John never really recovered.
Things spiraled downward from there. That same year he purchased the American Circus Corporation, and with the stock market crash followed by the Depression, and a short unhappy marriage, the culmination brought on financial woes and when John Ringling died on December 2, 1936 in New York City he left his house to the state of Florida and now visitors from all over the world can enjoy it.
A magical place, add the Ringling museums and home to your bucket list. Call 941-359-5700 for details.