The Secrets of Ca’ d’Zan with Ron McCarty
By Ed Bertha
Photography By Giovanni Lunardi
Photo slideshow at bottom
In 1925 Sarasota was just a small fishing town, yet was home to one of the most opulent mansions in the nation. Ranked the 13th richest man in America the same year, John Ringling’s wealth was estimated at $200 million and Time Magazine featured him on the cover. A self made man, he passed on in 1936.
Having homes in Chicago and New York City, Ringling discovered Sarasota through business acquaintance Ralph Caples. Caples was involved with the New York Central Railway, owned by the Vanderbilts, that ferried the much anticipated circus from city to city. With a desire to participate in Florida’s land boom, John Ringling set off to make Sarasota a resort community; rivaling those on the east coast of Florida.
Ca’ d’Zan represented a unique opportunity for the Ringlings to design and build their part-time winter retreat as both homes up north were purchased. What many do not know is the major role Mable played in the creation of Ca’ d’Zan. It was Mable who took John and architect Dwight James Baum to Venice, Italy to view Gothic architecture. Finding terracotta suiting her taste in a monastery in Buffalo, New York, it was Mable who insisted Baum travel to Philadelphia to visit the factory that would ultimately fire the terracotta for which the mansion is known. Her involvement was such that, while at the factory, she actually climbed into the kiln to see how the terracotta would be fired.
Mable was confident in her design and had no intention of copying an Italian Palazzo as others had done. Her vision was to create something unique that celebrated her love of flora and fauna. The exterior design, incorporating thousands of glazed tiles depicting flowers, fruit and animals, were designed by Mable. Inside Ca’ d’Zan the wall textures, fabric selections, and ceiling treatments were all guided by Mable. Ca’ d’Zan was an opportunity for Mable to express herself at a time when women still couldn’t vote.
Imagine being on the water during that period of time in Sarasota. Ca’ d’Zan had to be one of the most incredible homes to see; the gothic influences, the colors, the fantasy created by the tower. It still is today.
Known for the lavish parties and ballroom dancing, the Ringlings’ social circle consisted of entertainers of many sorts. With the circus being the most important entertainment industry at the time, writers, playwrights, producers, and politicians, frequented Ca’ d’Zan. John wasn’t into politics per say, but the relationships gave him the power to do what he wanted.
The Ringlings also enjoyed quieter times with a love for playing bridge. Many evenings they would start at brother Charles home, take the covered breezeway to daughter Hestor’s home, continue on to Ca’ d’Zan, and end up at the Caples’ home. Music also came into play as brother Charles had an Duo-Play Aeolian organ along with a second at Ca’ d’Zan, which was unheard of in such a small town.
The Ringlings were very generous and shared with Sarasota. Developing and owning the keys, they would host community picnics on Lido Key. Not just intent on hosting the picnic, buses were provided for the community to make the trip out. It wasn’t uncommon for 2,000 people to picnic, more than the population of Sarasota at the time. There would be games for the children, and Mable would provide them food and treats, which at that time, Cracker Jacks were a big hit.
Ca’d’Zan: “One Of The Most Important And Very Last Of The Gilded Age Mansions”
The Ringlings referred to the central living space of Ca’ d’Zan as “The Court.” The room was designed with a classical Northern Italian central court reminiscent of the open-air courtyards of the Renaissance. It features the crystal chandelier that was in the original Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, as well as a 31-foot high pecky cypress ceiling. Many intimate and large-scale functions were held in this space. The court was initially created for musical entertainment.
On the tower terrace, if one gazes up, a frieze of beautiful glazed terracotta tiles representing the signs of the Zodiac ring the tower. Upon walking up to the front entryway of Ca’ d’Zan, if you look up at the tower, the first Zodiac sign you will see is Mable’s; Pisces.
Looking out from the tower, John could view his extensive holdings of several thousand acres of barrier islands. He invested millions of dollars in connecting the islands to the mainland and building sea walls to prepare the barrier islands for development. Without the sea walls, Sarasota’s infamous keys would have shifted and not be here as we see them today.
Ca’ d’Zan still reigns as the largest private residence on the west coast of Florida. Greatly inspired by drawings and photographs from the Ringlings many trips to Europe, construction at times frustrated architect Baum. Mable’s hands on approach to construction resulted in numerous changes to the design of Ca’ d’Zan, exasperating Baum when he traveled from New York for site visits. It wasn’t uncommon for John to resolve the disputes, ensuring Mable’s requests were carried out as she wanted them.
The Ringlings were ahead of their time with the construction of Ca’ d’Zan in more ways than one. Ca’ d’Zan actually incorporated a “green” concept. At the time of construction, Granada, Spain, was expanding and many ancient buildings there were being demolished. The Ringlings purchased several thousand of the 17th century tiles and these recycled tiles made up the roof of Ca’ d’Zan.
After dinner the men headed upstairs. Entering the game room, off to the right is a panel hiding access to the vault. The vault door, actually a bank safe door, is so heavy that the ceiling below in Mable’s bedroom is reinforced to support the weight. Entering the vault, one readily notices the custom storage room created to house banned beverages. Remember the 1920’s were the time of Prohibition or The Noble Experiment as it became known.
With beverage in hand, the men played poker, and when tiring of cards, shot pool. With very few and small windows, the game room was illuminated from within. With the absence of external light, it wasn’t uncommon for the men to emerge and find themselves in the morning of the next day.
Normally under lock and key in the gold gilded mahogany Parisian dresser, Curator Ron McCarty displays a selection of John Ringling’s Paris-sourced Charvet ties. As stylish today as they were in the twenties, five of the ties can be reproduced and ordered through Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom’s. The taste for fine things continues to John Ringling’s office and to his New York Yacht Club suites, with accompanying hats and shoes, in the bedroom closet.
Born into a musical family, Ron began vacationing in Sarasota during the 70’s at relative’s homes. Schooled in painting at the Kansas City Art Institute and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, he fell in love with the abundance of nature in the area and permanently relocated in 1980. Applying to the John and Mable Museum of Art, he began as a Registrar, and the rest is history.
Outside of the continuing activities at Ca’ d’Zan, Ron finds time to partake in his hobbies. His love of painting is evident. At age 19, he exhibited alongside Thomas Hart Benton, one of the most important American painters of the 20th century. His painting of Corkscrew Swamp in the Everglades hung in Florida Governor Graham’s office. In his run for higher office, Governor Graham promoted “Saving the Everglades” and gave copies of the painting to his major contributors.
Ron prefers to paint in watercolors as he feels they are more realistic and challenging. Ron says “With watercolors you can’t make a mistake or you start over.” He has painted oils but admits they are not as fun to do.
In addition to painting, Ron is a collector. Art class exposed Ron to the 15th century medieval renaissance and illuminated manuscripts in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decorations. At age 14 he began to collect them to the consternation of his parents. To date, six museums have displayed the collection Ron continues to add to.
Also at a young age, Ron began collecting Biedermeier furniture due to its architectural traits. “I like the shapes, it’s simple with no ornamentation. Biedermeier is the beginning of modern furniture. The wood grain is the artistic part for me,” he quips.
“After 29 years my life has been living the museum” Ron concludes, “And it’s been a good life.”
Ron’s work has graced the George Pompidou Museum in Paris, The Jacksonville Art Museum, The Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, FL, The Florida State Capital, and The Florida Governor’s Mansion (3 Governors). He also was represented by the Capricorn Gallery in Washington DC and the Sheri French Gallery on 57th Street in New York City. He was chosen to be the cover artist for “The 6th International Exhibition of Botanical Art and Illustration” exhibition catalogue held at Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library. Quite a resume for a part time artist.
Aeolian Organ Restoration
The elegance and beauty of Ringling’s historic Ca’d’Zan, could only be matched by the orchestral sounds of the Aeolian Duo-Art Pipe Organ installed in January of 1925. Mable Ringling presented numerous concerts and musicales regularly at the mansion that became legendary in the Sarasota community. The custom built organ was installed in the main room of the house, the Court having a three-manual console that included a Duo-Art mechanism that could play recorded music from paper rolls. The enormous two-story organ chamber houses two-thousand two hundred eighty nine organ pipes that are concealed behind two 17th century Flemish tapestries on the mezzanine level of the Court.
The Aeolian Company was the finest builders of Pipe Organs for private residences in the United States with such patrons as Oliver H.P. Belmont, Frank Woolworth, William K. Vanderbilt, Joseph Pulitzer John D. Rockefeller and R.B. Mellon. The Ringling’s signing a contract for Opus Number 1559 on August 12, 1924 ordering the instrument having a three manual keyboard and pedals. The manual compass of 61 notes, pedal compass with 32 notes and Aeolian Solo (semi-automatic music rolls). The organ was installed January 1925 with a custom made console having gothic detailing to match the gothic flavor of the interior as well as the building’s exterior.
Having such a complete instrument is very rare with many Aeolian organs removed from the Gilded Age mansions and used as scrap metal during World War II leaving a small number in their original settings. As organs became less fashionable in the 1950’s to the 1970’s, they were removed from the old mansions and given to churches or even theaters. One recently came up on eBay that came from one of the Vanderbilt homes and could be purchased for $75,000.00. One of the major problems with buying an organ in this arena would be the fact that you have no idea of how the pipes were removed and if a great deal of damage occurred during the removal from the estate. Our instrument has been cared for like a gem with all pipes removed for the restoration into specially made crates to protect and prepare for the day of their restoration. We rotate the pipes once per year to guarantee that no reshaping has occurred with the long summer months in storage.
Only 30 Aeolian organs were built in the State of Florida and if 5 remain I would be totally surprised.
Copyright © 2010 REAL Magazine
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Photography used under license from Giovanni Lunardi Photography
Photography Copyright © 2010 Giovanni Lunardi