by Katie Hendrick | March 1, 2017
Cà d’Zan: A Monumental Love Story
Nearly 100 years ago, the coast of Sarasota embraced circus queen Mable Ringling’s bellissima Italian Gothic palace, Cà d’Zan. Though time hasn’t always romanced the castle, passionate preservationists have made it an irresistible Florida treasure.
Anguished after being left at the altar, Nora Dinsmoor, a wealthy spinster in Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1998), hides away in her mansion, Paradiso Perduto, interacting only with her niece, Estella, and a young orphan, Finn.
But before she even appears on screen (wearing Cleopatra makeup and a manic expression), her dejection surfaces in Paradiso Perduto’s decay. Vines crawl over windows, casting the rooms with a green-gray haze. Leaves cover the ballroom floor. In the garden—littered with weeds, fallen tree limbs and Spanish moss—sits a banquet table still set for her wedding reception. She places Finn’s hand on her chest, declaring, “This is my heart, and it’s broken. Can you feel it?” The answer is evident.
The modern interpretation of Charles Dickens’s novel swaps Kent, England for Sarasota, Florida, and uses one of the state’s most storied properties to illustrate the tale of love, loss and longing. The real Paradiso Perduto is Cà d’Zan (Pronounced: Cah-di-zon), former home of John and Mable Ringling, king and queen of the circus.
Like its fictional counterpart, Cà d’Zan (“House of John” in Venetian dialect) had an auspicious start. The couple modeled it after the medieval palazzos they saw during their Italian honeymoon and envisioned a future full of lively celebrations. Indeed, in its heyday between 1926 and 1928, the 36,000-square-foot, 56-room estate was famous for its Gatsby-like galas. Men in tails twirled women in flapper dresses around a marble terrace while musicians serenaded them from a yacht docked in the bay. But just as Dinsmoor’s jilting initiated the downfall of Paradiso Perduto, a series of tribulations—including the Ringlings’ deaths and the Great Depression—signaled the end for Cà d’Zan.
The Ringlings’ home, however, doesn’t end in a great tragedy.
In 1906, newlywed Mable, a farm girl from Ohio, feasted on the novelty of Venice, particularly its maze of canals and Moorish and Byzantine influences. After returning home, she became a globetrotter, accompanying her husband on scouting trips for circus performers. While John sniffed out talent, Mable dissected architecture to use as inspiration for her future Sarasota home. She commissioned watercolor prints of her favorite structures and stuffed pieces of marble and glass in a canvas satchel. She even salvaged thousands of 17th-century roof tiles from a soon-to-be-demolished building in Spain.
Following nearly two decades of idea gathering, construction of Cà d’Zan began in 1924. It took two years to complete and cost a then-staggering $1.5 million.
Having previously decorated the couple’s homes in New York City and Alpine, New Jersey, Mable had the confidence and patience to tackle such a massive undertaking without any formal design training.
“It bears his name, but Cà d’Mable might have been more appropriate,” says Ron McCarty, the house’s longtime curator. “She selected every detail inside and out—and oversaw builders’ and artisans’ work to ensure they met her standards.”
John, whose business ventures had expanded into real estate development, used Cà d’Zan to entertain movers and shakers like theater producer Florenz Ziegfeld and comedian Will Rogers and embolden them to invest in Florida. For Mable, Cà d’Zan was simply home, where she relaxed with her nearest and dearest.
Diabetes and Addison’s disease (an adrenal disorder) precluded pregnancy, but they didn’t dampen her maternal disposition. She cherished informal visits with family that included gondola rides on the bay, bridge games, impromptu piano recitals and, always, the sounds of pets. (Among her motley crew: a German Shepherd, an African Grey parrot and a leopard.)
Chris Schueler, a filmmaker in New Mexico and Mable’s grandnephew, grew up hearing his father describe childhood sleepovers at Cà d’Zan. “I’m sure most had been embellished,” he says—especially stories involving circus animals—“but it was clear he considered it a magical place.” When his mother passed away in 1990, Schueler brought his father to Cà d’Zan in an effort to cheer him, only to discover a home that appeared abandoned. “Dad was devastated,” he says.
A GRADUAL DECLINE
Cà d’Zan’s light started to dim when Mable passed away in 1929. The following year, John remarried. In short time, the Great Depression and the second Mrs. Ringling’s spending habits drained his fortune. John died in 1936, five months after an unprecedentedly expensive divorce, with $311 to his name. He bequeathed his property to the state, but legal wrangling with his creditors kept it out of Florida’s control for a full decade.
There was a brief revival in 1947, when the state hired Chick Austin to give Cà d’Zan a cursory makeover and open it to the public. The hiring of Austin represented the founding of The Ringling, an independent organization that administrates both the house and the art museum. After Austin’s death in 1957, most of the furnishings went into roughly a dozen storage units around town.
By the time McCarty arrived at The Ringling in 1980, Cà d’Zan had aged terribly. Salty air had expanded armatures inside the home’s columns, cracked walls and flung terracotta tiles into the air. Humidity unfurled wallpaper. Private events—then the house’s primary function—welcomed tipsy wedding guests inside, who didn’t always treat antiques with tender loving care.
“It looked like a spooky movie set,” McCarty says, recalling broken armchairs with rotted velvets and standing water in the basement. “The Great Expectations cinematographers had great raw material.”
A turning point came in the early 1990s, when a film crew featured Cà d’Zan in an episode of A&E’s America’s Castles.
“They had to be creative, shooting at certain angles to disguise the damage,” McCarty says. “But they captured its former glamour.” The television program, which aired in 1995, had an immediate impact. McCarty fielded calls from art historians and architectural buffs eager to study the house. Visitors began pouring in daily for self-guided tours.
“A&E proved we were sitting on something special,” McCarty says. The Ringling’s board of directors had to make a decision: continue renting out Cà d’Zan as a party venue or reestablish it as a period museum?
Anyone who watched the show—and observed the public interest it generated—knew what was meant to be.
McCarty led the Ringling staff in a top-to-bottom restoration that spanned more than six years, cost $15 million, involved countless experts and volunteers, and required dozens of fundraisers. (A federal grant called “Save America’s Treasures” also helped finance the project.) The unquantifiable part of the equation, though, was McCarty’s devotion to the home’s creator and her dream.
He consumed every newspaper article from the 1910s and ’20s he could find to understand Mable’s personality. There were reports of pie-eating contests she hosted for local children and many mentions of the garden club she founded. He also tracked down descendants of her siblings, in-laws and employees, whose anecdotes echoed the papers’ stories of a community-oriented, fun-loving matriarch—and added emotional heft to the mission. “The more I learned, the more I loved her,” he says. “I wanted to honor her by getting every detail right.”
SLEUTHING AND SWEATING
Relatives also supplied photographs of Cà d’Zan’s construction and early years, many of which Mable snapped with her own Brownie camera.
In 1996, while the cast of Great Expectations (including Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke and Anne Bancroft) filmed scenes downstairs, McCarty toiled in his office, located in the servants’ quarters, organizing images by room and identifying the objects in them.
A 1927 article in Country Life discussed the home’s decorative themes (chiefly flora, fauna and Venice) and the artists responsible for them. Syracuse University, alma mater of Cà d’Zan’s architect, Dwight James Baum, also held a lot of answers in its archives. Other clues hid in the Ringlings’ receipts marking purchases from other estates.
Next came the onerous task of locating items in the myriad storage units and dealing with the damage caused by nearly 40 years of heat and humidity. (Climate control wasn’t common in the early ’60s.)
He called on the world’s top conservators to assess each piece and recruited skilled artists to work their magic. Silk tapestries traveled to Washington, D.C., and London to be re-loomed by craftsmen who’d worked on the White House and Buckingham Palace, while a Sarasota needlepoint guild reupholstered seat cushions.
As he motions to a Venetian revival chair with cherub designs carved in its arms, McCarty recollects when it was just bits of wood in a box. “Amazing, isn’t it? Anything is fixable—if you have the money.”
In 2000, Florida State University took over The Ringling, funneling capital into the project in record time and ushering it to completion. (State universities have matching gift programs that double contributions.)
Cà d’Zan fully returned to its original glory in April 2002. McCarty and staff toasted the achievement with a black tie dinner not unlike something Mable might have planned, down to the singer who arrived by boat. The house has since appeared in operatic prodigy Jackie Evancho’s 2011 “Dream with Me” concert for PBS and in the 2013 film Parker, starring Jennifer Lopez. Couples continue to exchange vows on Mable’s terrace, but these days, guests may only wander the Ringlings’ rooms if a docent-led tour has been scheduled—no champagne or canapés allowed!
Still, McCarty says his greatest pleasure has been exposing people—about half a million annually—to Mable’s joie de vivre.
Yvette Angelique of Atlantic Beach is one of those visitors. At the end of a beastly hot day last July, she’d already conquered The Ringling’s 31-gallery art museum and wanted to retire to her hotel. But a westerly bay breeze and insatiable curiosity drew her next-door to “the breathtaking house by the water.” She marveled at the porticoes filled with stained glass, the enormous Kelvinator icebox and the playful motifs, from grapevines to seahorses to Zodiac symbols, incorporated into seemingly every surface—but fixated on Mable’s photographs throughout the mansion. Whether donning a billowing fur coat like a Russian princess or a black, drop-waist dress like a regal socialite, “she looked very comfortable in her own skin—not pretentious at all,” Angelique says. “I got the sense Mable Ringling wasn’t trying to show off. I think she simply enjoyed creating—and living in—her own work of art.”
On December 1, 2016, 90 years after Mable Ringling first threw open the gilded doors of her dream home, more than 2,000 visitors streamed through a thoroughly festooned Cà d’Zan. School choirs performed before a 10-foot tree decorated with hand-blown German glass ornaments popular in the Ringlings’ era. The price of admission was a toy to benefit a child in need. “It was the perfect anniversary celebration,” McCarty says. “All those children enjoying her home? Nothing would have made Mable happier.”
In 1927, shortly after occupying Cà d’Zan, John Ringling moved his circus’s winter headquarters from Connecticut to Sarasota. Feld Entertainment, based 15 miles north in Palmetto, purchased the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from Ringling’s nephew in 1967. This January, the company announced that the show would end in May. Sarasota remains home to countless circus performers, as well as a 120,000-square-foot circus museum, The Ringling.