A Showman’s Mansion

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The Cà d’Zan, John and Mable Ringling’s ode to Venice on Sarasota Bay, was at one point one of the most famous houses in America, widely photographed and published. Then it was almost lost to us. A decade or so ago, the once-sumptuous mansion was a shambles, the result of benign neglect and even a […]


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The Cà d’Zan, John and Mable Ringling’s ode to Venice on Sarasota Bay, was at one point one of the most famous houses in America, widely photographed and published. Then it was almost lost to us. A decade or so ago, the once-sumptuous mansion was a shambles, the result of benign neglect and even a certain amount of abuse.

Today, it’s back again, and it’s exquisite, really exquisite, the result of a challenging restoration and a prodigious curatorial effort by the staff of the Ringling Museum. The restoration is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is in its attention to even the most finite of details and for the recovery of furniture and objects that might easily have been lost to us.

Not to wax too poetic (though, truly, this restoration deserves some lofty language): The stucco walls are a rosy pale peach again, as they were in John and Mable’s time. The terra cotta shines bright, in the bold colors that give this house its spirit. Elsewhere in America, the captains of commerce were building super-serious houses as showcases of their wealth and importance, the Cà d’Zan among them. But Ringling’s fortune came from the circus, and appropriately enough, Cà d’Zan has its own measure of mirth.

That’s not to say it’s in any way negligible. I’d seen the Cà d’Zan as a teenager on vacation in Sarasota with my family, but it was not until I came back in the 1980s as an architecture critic that I comprehended its importance-and its considerable beauty. I was also, then, stunned by what horrible shape it was in, all but neglected (at the time, the state had almost no budget for its care, much less its conservation or restoration) and left as a ruin-in-the-making.

It took more than a decade after that (and some $15 million) to bring the Cà d’Zan back, but it’s here now, and for that we should all celebrate.

Start outside and work in. The initial effort-guided by the Boston architect Ann Beha and the late (and much lamented) Tampa architect Jan Abell, who died in a riding accident in October 2000-was to secure the building from the elements. "Florida is a very hard environment," says Ron McCarty, the Ringling’s registrar and one of the key players in the restoration. The earliest phase of the restoration dealt with the tricky technicalities of the Spanish roof tiles, the local stucco and the made-in-Pennsylvania terra cotta.

The profuse terra cotta decoration-predominantly blue, rust and green-was commissioned by Mable Ringling from Oren Ketchum, a Philadelphia craftsman. As with many other aspects of the house, she oversaw its design and casting. In the course of restoration, architects and curators alike grew to understand how much the Cà d’Zan sprang from Mable Ringling’s mind. It is an ode to her taste, her desires, her aspirations. "Really," says Linda Stevenson, the English-born Bradenton architect who completed the restoration, "it’s her house. She was the design force. And from the first, I always knew that Mable was the key. We had to understand her aesthetic."

Mable attended auctions, among them that of the estate of the robber baron Jay Gould, to buy furniture. She selected paint colors; each of the upstairs guest bedrooms, for example, is painted in a hue that is found in the colored leaded glass of the Cà d’Zan’s windows. Indeed, the design team discovered that in many of the rooms, she had used an extremely complex paint palette, one with numerous gradations of colors and subtle trim-a narrow line of paint subtly inserted into the moldings, for example.

Today the Cà d’Zan is much as Mable would have had it; the curatorial decision was to restore it to her time, not a later point in the house’s life. "We believed it was the best interpretive scheme," says Aaron DeGroft, the Ringling’s deputy director and chief curator. Once that was done, the photographic and scientific evidence had to be assembled, but luck was with us. The documentation existed in the form of clear images (for the most part), extant fabric and paint that could be carefully excavated as newer layers were chipped away.

McCarty and others crawled through the dust and debris of basements and attics where furniture and fabrics had been stored, often finding parts of a chair or table in one location and other pieces in another. He rescued original furniture that had been in storage for as long as 60 years. A crawl space in the attic yielded silk tapestries and Napoleon III carpets. English artisans (starting with Geoffrey Preston and Jenny Lawrence on the façade restoration) were deployed to repair and re-gild, weave and reweave-the International Fine Arts Conservation Group for furniture; and Wendy Cushing Trimmings (owned by Connie Findley of Sarasota) wove tassels and trim for curtains and upholstery as a donation.

A certain amount of rediscovery took place. Two walls in the reception room had once featured painted cartouches, but the walls had been covered over and the artwork was not left in place. Working from a photo that just showed the smallest corner of one of the cartouches, McCarty scoured attics and basements for something that looked right. He found them, brought them to the reception room and "they just popped right in."

As the restoration progressed, more documentation was found. One morning, a Ringling staff member discovered a book of photos taken during the Cà d’Zan’s construction had gone up for bid on Ebay. Likewise, the photos done by mid-century American architectural photographer Samuel Gottscho provided guidance as the curators sought as much authenticity as possible.

An intriguing decision was made to leave bits of furniture or parts of the painted ceilings as they had been before the work began, a kind of documentation of the process. It makes for fascinating viewing, to say the least.

"The Cà d’Zan is a theater, really," says DeGroft. "It’s a stage for the furnishings."

In many ways, the Cà d’Zan is the last of America’s Gilded Age mansions, and it is almost an elegy to the era. For one thing, it was completed in December 1925, really at the tail end of all the great architectural exuberance of the era of the industrialists before the era of the income tax. The great houses of Newport came to us largely at the turn of the 20th century, as did the various Vanderbilt mansions elsewhere in the country. James Deering began Vizcaya in 1914. William Randolph Hearst embarked on San Simeon in 1922.

The Vanderbilts and Astors and Belmonts and Deerings (the list could go on to include the Huntingtons and the Stotesburys and numerous others) plundered the palaces and villas of Europe, bringing back objects, furniture and even whole rooms that were crated up and re-assembled. Ringling was a late-comer, and one might even say an arriviste, perhaps more than so many of the other builders of America’s great Gilded Age houses-most of whom were born to considerable wealth and simply elaborated on it.

Thus, the Ringlings bought rooms and artifacts and objects from the earlier Gilded Age estates, many of them designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt for the Astor family; and they also brought in furnishings they admired from commercial establishments, including the grand chandelier that came from the old Waldorf-Astoria on Fifth Avenue, torn down to make way for the Empire State Building.

While others hired the great decorators of the era (from Ogden Codman at the Breakers to Paul Chalfin at Vizcaya) to buy for them and create their decor, John and Mable Ringling, self-taught and self-reliant, did much of it themselves. In the first decades of the century, they traveled widely as John Ringling built his art collection; Mable was taking it all in. And together they honed their tastes in architecture and interior design. Ringling’s connoisseurship-of painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts-has been well studied and well documented, but the archival material is sparser when it comes to the house they built together.

We do know that they loved Venice. Various sources tell us that Mable wanted to re-create the Doge’s Palace or her favorite hotels, the Gritti Palace and the Danieli. And certainly, though it sprawls like an English country house, the Cà d’Zan stands in full testimony to this love. "It’s sort of Palladian in the way it stretches along the waterfront," says Stevenson, "and of course the English country house owed a great debt to Palladio." It’s somehow more Venetian than Venice, and at the same time, not Venetian at all; it’s a showman’s house, and in that, it is also a showy house.

"The Ringlings themselves had a diverse visual tapestry," says DeGroft. "It may have started out as a purely Venetian house, but by the time they were finished, it was something far more complex-Venetian, Gothic, Byzantine and still at the core a 47-room country house. There are two plays here. Ringling was conscious of the American Gilded Age and the new moneyed elite in this country, but he also regarded the rich European heritage that was his as well. This house has both."

Anecdotal material and historical records offer a limited glimpse into the beginnings of Cà d’Zan. We do know that the Ringlings started out with the lesser-known architect Thomas Reed Martin and his son, Frank, and then turned to far more widely regarded New York architect, Dwight James Baum. Baum had a reputation for his skills, especially in adapting European and English styles. A fervent eclecticism still held sway in the early 1920s, as the rich built houses both in the city and the countryside.

But what were the Ringlings’ intentions? Did they want "just a little bit of a place," as John Ringling is often quoted as saying to his architects? Or did he say "just a little palace," as Merrill Folsom reports in his two-volume effort called Great American Mansions? More likely his intentions were more grandiose: Ringling’s correspondence (quoted in David C. Weeks’ book, Ringling in Florida) indicates he was aiming for a "pretentious house."

Over the years, there was some debate as to whether the house was actually the work of the two Martins or of Baum. It’s clear that the Martins, father and son, left the job after drawing preliminary plans and that once Baum became the architect, the design took full shape. It’s thought that Baum restrained the Ringlings from ever more grandiosity, though it’s also possible that the economics of building a lavish house prevailed.

DeGroft, whose doctoral dissertation was on Ringling, is convinced that it was Baum. The final version of the house, he says, "shows the mark of the master. There’s a great advancement in the level of sophistication, in the detail, the change in the coloration, the added weight, the darker colors. It was good, but Baum made it great. It was the added finesse at the end that made it great."

Mable Ringling did not get to live in it long. She died in 1929. John stayed on and eventually remarried, though less than happily. Largely, he devoted himself to building his museum. At his death in 1936, the entire development was given to the state of Florida. That was a blessing, largely, though for the house, it became a bit of a curse, as the conservation of the Cà d’Zan became dependent on the vagaries of state legislative whim. "The late 1970s and 1980s were grim years for the house," says Stevenson. Ultimately, in 2000, the entire complex (the art and circus museums, house and grounds) were transferred to Florida State University.

But this is a story with a happy ending. The Cà d’Zan is back, restored to its rightful place as a coda to a grand age of architecture. It’s in the best of protective hands-the architects, curators and conservators who have so carefully nurtured it back to life. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude. "It’s a shining gem of an example of what one person’s vision could be," says DeGroft. And now we can truly share in that vision.

Beth Dunlop is an architecture critic and author who lives in Miami Beach. Her most recent books include Beach Beauties, A House for My Mother, Architects Build for Their Families, Miami Trends and Traditions, and Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture. Her earlier book, Florida’s Vanishing Architecture, included a look at a number of historic Sarasota buildings.