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Even though the sun has set on the glory days of the traveling circus, the name ‘Ringling’ still conjures images of high-wire feats of bravery, exotic animals, old-school clowns, and childhood joy. The Ringling legacy extends beyond the shows that made the brothers famous, though. The most famous of the Ringling brothers was John, and his winter estate in Sarasota was (and still remains) famously opulent. John Ringling’s Ca’ d’Zan is a Venetian-inspired palace alongside an art museum that is unlike anything anywhere else in the world.
John Ringling, the circus king
To understand Ca ‘d’Zan, it’s important to understand the Ringling Brothers’ story. John was born in Iowa in 1866 to German immigrants, the fifth of seven children. They had one sister as well.
In 1884, the brothers started a small circus in Baraboo, and by 1889, they were traveling the country by train, charging adults 50 cents and children 25 cents to see “The Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals”. The name later changed to the less-wordy “The Ringling Bros. Classic and Comic Concert Company”.
The show toured by train all across the country through the 1900s, and the Ringling brothers soon became a household name. John’s job was as the advance man, visiting towns ahead of the circus to promote the show and plaster buildings with posters. John and his brothers bought the famed Barnum and Baileys circus in 1907, and operated them separately, growing them before combining them into an empire in 1919. Soon, John and Charles were some of the richest men in the country.
Outside the three-ring circus of his work life, John married his wife Mable in 1905, and in 1926, Charles died, leaving John the only Ringling brother. In 1927, John moved the show’s winter headquarters to Sarasota, where he was also investing in real estate on the side. Construction had been completed on John and Mable’s new winter home, Ca ‘d’Zan, in 1926.
Ringling’s Ca ‘d’Zan, the palace of the circus king
John and Mable were especially fond of the architecture and culture of Venice. They chose the site for Ca ‘d’Zan because its location on the bay reminded them of the stunning Venetian Lagoon. The name Ca ‘d’Zan is Venetian for “The House of John”, and the architecture draws influence from all over, including (of course) the Doge’s Palace in Venice and even the first Madison Square Garden.
The home took two years and cost $1.5 million to build. It’s five stories tall, with 56 rooms across the 36,000 square foot mansion. Mable herself oversaw almost every aspect of construction, from the terracotta to the tiles. The roof was even originally done with original 16th-century Spanish tiles, imported in. One highlight of the building is the 82-foot Belvedere Tower that features an open-air patio and an elaborate domed roof. John would frequently entertain the celebs of the day at Ca ‘d’Zan, including comedian Will Rogers and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.
But the glory days of Ca ‘d’Zan were short lived. Mable died of Addison’s Disease in 1929, only three years after the home was completed. But John made sure her legacy lived on. John and Mable were also avid art collectors, and John opened a public museum to house and display their collection in 1931, two years after Mable’s death. When John died in 1936, he bequeathed his estate to the people of Florida.
Visiting the Ringling Estate today
It was reopened to the public in 1946, and underwent a massive, much-needed renovation in 1996 (ironically, right after the mansion was used as a filming location for Miss Havisham’s decaying mansion in a Hollywood remake of Great Expectations.) There are several different unique places to explore here: the Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, the home itself, and the gardens.
Honor Mable by touring the Museum of Art that John opened after her death. It has grown to include far more than Ringling’s original collection of pieces by the likes of Langetti, Sorine, Devouge and Mazo. The Circus Museum tells the story of the Ringling Brothers’ traveling circus and includes countless gorgeous artifacts, from the train car on which John Ringling and Mable traveled to the cannon that shot out fearless performers, along with costumes, props, posters, and more.
Ca ‘d’Zan itself offers several various tours through the mansion. Take “John’s Tour” to access the rooms not visited on standard tours, including the game room where Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker and John Ringling may have played poker together, Will Roger’s favorite bedroom on the fourth floor, and the Belvedere Tower. “Mable’s Tour” is a docent-led walk through the first and second floors, or you can buy a ticket to a self-guided tour of the first floor that also includes access to the museums on site.
The Ringling estate is also home to some pretty stunning gardens. There’s a rose garden inspired by the one Mable kept, which features 1200 roses, including many varieties that she herself had planted. Also visit the Secret Garden, check out the statues in the Dwarf Garden, and admire the design of the Courtyard. As you explore the estate of Ringling’s winter home, the Ca ‘d’Zan, you’ll feel transported to another time and place entirely!