Ca’ d’Zan

October 21st, 2020

1965, Aerial view looking east over the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

On this edition of Learning from Miami, we visit Sarasota, Florida and explore Ca’ d’Zan, the palatial former home of American circus mogul and art collector John Ringling.

John Ringling was one of seven American siblings who founded the Ringling Brothers, one of the largest circus troupes in the United States. In 1907, the Ringling Brothers purchased Barnum and Bailey circus  for $400,000 from the estate of James Anthony Bailey. The warm Florida weather enticed the Ringlings to move the circus’ winter quarters to Sarasota, Florida in 1927.

With his ownership of railroads, oil fields and ranches, John Ringling had become one of the richest men in the world. Ringling hired New York architect Dwight James Baum to design a palace for him and his wife Mable. The Ringlings named their dream home Ca’ d’Zan (Venetian for the “House of John”). Construction of the 36,000 sq. ft. home took two years to complete at a cost of $1.5. million, and was designed in the style of an Italian Venetian Gothic palace.

John Ringing was an art collector. He had a passion for European paintings from the late Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Ringling had a vision to build a museum of art in Sarasota. In 1925, he employed architect John H. Phillips, who was the architect of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grand Central Terminal, to plan the museum project. Ringling had the museum built on his property within walking distance of Ca’ D’Zan.

In 1929, John Ringling’s wife, Mable, suddenly passed away. In Mable’s honor, Ringling named the museum “The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.” The museum officially opened to the public in 1931.

Ringling’s health soon began to fail. The Great Depression dealt a severe financial blow to Ringling. He lost most of his wealth, but was able to keep Ca’ d’Zan, the museum and his extensive art collection.  Ringling died on December 2, 1936. As it was stipulated in his will, the Ringling Estate was donated to the people of Florida.

In 1948, the museum hired its first director, Everett Austin. Austin curated the Circus Museum, which is also located on the Ringling estate. Austin assembled a large collection of costumes, circus train cars, and various pieces of memorabilia donated by local circus families. The Circus Museum also contains the Wisconsin, the railroad car that John and Mable Ringling used while traveling with the circus.

In 1949, Austin learned about the Queen Catarina Cornaro Theater located in Asolo, Italy. The building was commissioned in 1798 by Italian impresario Antonio Locatelli. The theater was now owned by a friend of Austin’s, a Venetian antiques dealer named Adolph Loewi. Loewi had salvaged the theater in the 1930s when it was disassembled and removed from where it was located in order to build a new movie theater.

Austin saw potential in the historic playhouse as an exhibit for the museum. He convinced the state of Florida to purchase the theater for $8,000 which was then shipped to Sarasota. In 1952, the theater was put on display in the art museum. In the late 1950s, the Asolo theater was reconstructed into a performing arts center. When it reopened in 1958, the Asolo became the epicenter for the performing arts in Central Florida.

In 1980, the Museum of Art became the official State Art Museum of Florida. In 1982 Ca’ d’Zan was chosen to be part of the Caples-Ringling Historic District. The historic district includes land once owned by Charles Ringling and is now part of New College of Florida.

Over time Ca’ d’Zan began to show signs of neglect. The aging palace was featured in the 1998 motion picture adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” starring Ethan Hawke and Gwenyth Paltrow. “Great Expectations” brought renewed interest to Ca’ d’Zan. During the mid-1990’s residents of Sarasota where able to raise private and public funding to repair the aging estate. In April of 2002, Ca’ d’Zan was completely refurbished and reopened to the public.

-Ursa Gil


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