Behind-the-Scene Tour of The Ringling, Crown Jewel of Florida’s Cultural Coast

Disclosure: Thank you, VisitSarasota.com and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own.

 

This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass pavilion, historic theater, arboretum, gardens, and  palatial mansion is a place where lovers of all kinds can wander away from crowds. More a destination than an attraction, The Ringling alone is worth a trip to Sarasota County. It’s also a cultural center for local members and a dream venue for romance and weddings.

I took a three-hour private tour with Virginia Harshman, Ringling Public Relations Head, M.A. Harvard University in Museum Studies. She gave me a behind-the-scenes look, unlocking secret areas with keys, masterful storytelling, and passion for the property and the people who built it. I left wishing that I’d explored this hidden gem and national/global treasure a long time ago and looking forward to a future visit.

The Ringling is beautiful in any season. It’s not too late to plan  the perfect Valentine’s, Spring Break, Remote School, or Summer Getaway.

Who loves The Ringling? 

The Ringling Art Museum Courtyard

I Do! I Do! And if you’re one of these 10 Kinds of Lovers, you will, too…

1) Lovers of Love Stories & The 1920s American Dream

Even before I heard the love story of John and Mabel Ringling, American Royalty who owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I fell in love at first sight with their home. Ca’ d’Zan transported me to my favorite era, the Roaring ‘20s, and two of my favorite places on earth. Its Moorish arches took me back to Morocco 

and its overall design to Venice where I started another new year. Inspired by the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, the five-story Venetian Gothic Revival mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay. 

Doge’s Palace, New Year’s Eve, 2015
Doge’s Palace
Ca’ d’Zan Photo Courtesy of The Ringling

The exterior’s stucco as well as many glass windows and bedrooms are pink hues. My favorite color,  the breathtaking property, and  John Ringling’s story reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Jay Gatsby, and his pink suit. John Ringling, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist, had humble beginnings and both tenaciously pursued The American Dream. I could imagine Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, called a “circus wagon,” parked in the driveway beside John Ringling’s Rolls-Royce, now on exhibit in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.

Walking the grounds, I could imagine legendary ‘20s parties around Gatsby’s and on the Ringling terrace.  John and Mabel frequently entertained celebrities, like Will Rogers who had his own guest room, movie directors, politicians, and actresses, such as Billie Burke, better known as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Jay was “The Great Gatsby”and “John was King of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Both built romantic palaces for the women they loved, but here the parallels end. Daisy rejected Jay and his new money. John and Mabel had similar values–maybe because she, too, came from a modest family. They were kindred spirits in their shared love for culture, art, and travel, as well as their desire to give back. Their legacy is now the State Art Museum of Florida administered by Florida State University. 

Though Ca’ d’Zan means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect, it has been called John’s “love letter” to Mabel. They built it together, getting ideas as they traveled the world for twenty-five years buying art and new circus acts.  She collected in an oilskin portfolio photos and sketches of architecture, gardens, and design. See the video below of my behind-the-scenes tour where I learned more about Mabel and why everyone at The Ringling adores her.

John and Mabel Ringling

2)  Lovers of Architecture and Design

In 1911, John and Mabel began spending winters in Sarasota on 20 acres of waterfront property they purchased. They continued buying real estate and at one time owned 25% of the town. In 1924 they hired architect Dwight James Baum to design and Owen Burns to build the 36,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival of their dreams. In addition to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grand Hotel d’Italie Bauer-Grünwald  inspired the plans. 

Ca’ d’Oro, Venice taken New Year’s Day, 2016

The roof was made of 16th century tiles John found in Barcelona and sent home in two cargo ships. The marble bayside terrace –now used for weddings, yoga classes, and other gatherings– was used by the Ringlings for entertaining. The orchestra played for guests from their yacht, Zalophus, beside Mabel’s gondola which bobbed in the bay. Their dining room table seated 22, and cocktails were served in style at parties and in John’s Man Cave. 

Ballroom Ceiling

John’s Man Cave

Virginia gave me a look at the upper floors of the house which were closed due to Covid. I felt like I was a kid again–Nancy Drew on a snoop–when she showed me the secret Playroom. Overlooking Sarasota from the 82-foot tower is a moment I won’t forget. (See video below.)

Everywhere you look there is regal beauty. John Ringling’s bedroom
Mabel and John painted on The Playroom ceiling
Some guest rooms, such this one where Will Rogers often stayed, were closed due to Covid
Everyday feels like a holiday at Ca’ de’Zan

 

3) Lovers of Art and History

After Ca’ d’Zan was completed, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the courtyard stands a cast bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David purchased from the Chiurrazi Foundry outside of Rome, Italy.  It’s now the symbol of the City of Sarasota on Florida’s Cultural Coast.

The Ringling, Sarasota, Florida’s Cultural Coast

Ringling Courtyard Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

 Inside are collections of Classical and Modern Masters. In 1931, two years after the death of Mabel, John opened the museum to the public to promote “education and art appreciation, especially for our young people.” In 1936 he left it to the state of Florida upon his death. See the video above on the Rubens Gallery, the family crest John had designed, and Modern Art exhibits, such as the photography series, A Girl and Her Room . A world-class cultural center, The Ringling Art Museum was just awarded another grant–this one from the Andy Warhol Foundation.

At the Museum of Art and Education Center budding artists,  Artists in Residence, and teachers find resources, professional development, and inspiration. 

4) Lovers of Theater/Performing Arts

The Historic Asolo Theater itself, once in the castle in Asolo, Italy of Queen Caterina Cornaro, Venetian-born widow of the King of Cyprus is a MUST-SEE.

It has been restored and moved into the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Wemouth, architect for the Pyramide du Lovre, East Wing of the National Gallery in D.C. and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. See performing arts schedule here.

5) Lovers of Glass Art

Grouped by country of origin, works of art from the studio glass movement from the 1940s to the present are in the Glass Pavilion here.

5) Lovers of Gardens and Gorgeous Landscapes

In the 66-acre paradise are waterfront gardens and a Level II Arboretum with 100 different species of trees to hug. John and Mabel are buried in the Secret Garden below.

Secret Garden

6) Lovers of Cinderella Stories, Business, and Finance

The Ringling family story is fascinating. In 1927 John Ringling, one of the wealthiest men in the world, made Sarasota the winter headquarters for the circus. In addition to owning “The Greatest Show on Earth” he invested in oil, railroads, Madison Square Garden, and his community. When he died his estate appraised at $23.5 million, and he had $311 in the bank. Business Insider gives an in-depth analysis here.  

7) The Circus and Circus Movies

Ok, I admit it. I’ve saved the best for near-last.  One of my favorite movies as a child wasThe Greatest Show on Earth  which I watched again this week while writing this piece. Director Cecil B. DeMille traveled with the circus for research and John North, John Ringling’s nephew, plays himself in the film as he tries to save the show in changing times. I loved seeing Sarasota where it was filmed–especially the parade down Main Street which included locals as extras. When it was made, there was no Walt Disney World; time under the Big Top was the premiere happy place for children. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year. Though some critics didn’t agree with it winning Best Picture, I’m with  Stephen Spielberg, another fan. He said it was the first movie he ever saw and it inspired his film career.  Since my mom’s generation, kids would say, “I’m goin’ run away and join the circus!” Swinging from a trapeze in sequins and feathers still looks pretty fun to me. 

Check out Sarasota’s Circus Legacy and Circus Museum here. Don’t miss the world’s largest model circus (see video) and special exhibits, like Circus and Suffragists

9) Lovers of Visionaries, Dreamers, and Muses

John was one of eight children of a German immigrant. Mabel grew up in a small farming community in a family of eight. John began in a small circus as a clown. 

After making his fortune, he bought Saint Armand’s Key to develop it into a center for shopping, restaurants, and art. Though the Great Depression deferred his dream, it was fulfilled later by others. Today his statue overlooks Saint Armand’s Circle, a global destination. Here statues he donated to the city  transport visitors to other cultural centers, like Rome and Athens. Other plans he had for Sarasota were thwarted by the times, such as a residence for a U.S. President and a Ritz-Carlton on Longboat Key. The statues today in The Ringing Art Museum Courtyard had been purchased for the hotel.  One thing is for sure. He shared his love for mythology and was a muse and myth maker himself.

St. Armands Circle

10) Lovers of Photos Ops

If you are vacationing with teens and they aren’t convinced yet to do The Ringling, tell them it’s Instagram heaven. You can also book professional  portraits  here. 

 

MORE OPPORTUNITIES

Until you can visit in person, virtual options are here:

https://www.ringling.org/events/virtual-talks-lectures

https://www.ringling.org/events/learn-home-anytime

Valentine Celebration

Spring Break Treat April 1–my favorite artist on the Big Screen here.

Florida’s Cultural Coast: Part 1

Part 2

 

 

 

To Moms from Marrakech to Music City Post-Holiday

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Thank you to Kate, an Australian expat mom I met through InterNations who moved to Marrakech last fall, too.  Her son visited and returned home before my children came, and she set up lunch for last Sunday before I left for London knowing I’d need a friend after the holidays who understands the joy of sharing this life with family, then sadly saying goodbye again.  To all moms who spent quality time during the holidays with your children–adult ones who live elsewhere and little ones you could stay in pjs with you till noon, is there any gift greater?

January 1 as my daughter and son disappeared through Heathrow’s security gate I felt the ground I’d gained shake.

Before meeting them in London, I’d left school for winter break thrilled that I was almost there…Christmas Eve…when I’d hug Taylor and Cole at the airport.  I also felt peace because I was there–my first big marker since moving– as students hugged bye and called across campus, “Have a nice holiday, Miss!”  A coworker reminded me that our dance class would resume in January, and I looked forward to working with Model UN students in the spring, then traveling with them to St. Petersburg, Russia.  I was excited for a colleague who had been hired by a school in Brazil next fall and wondered if I’d apply for South America or Europe one day.  I’d met her and two other new friends for lunch at our favorite restaurant, and we all celebrated soon seeing family and friends in Italy, Austria, the US, and England.

Despite fall’s challenges, fears, tears, I’d made new relationships on amazing adventures, discovering beauty without and strength within. I realized I’d survived my first continent teaching/living on a new continent, and In 2015, I thought, I will thrive.

Spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve with Taylor and Cole in London and bringing them to Marrakesh were some of the happiest days of my life.  Taylor said it was her favorite vacation we three have spent together.  Cole loved his first trip abroad, and we all said we could not have had more fun.

On the plane to meet them I’d read a travel article called “How to Escape Your Family for the Holidays.” I was so glad I’d be traveling with mine.  Seeing the two loves of my life–who are my home–and spending nine days with them was an even bigger blessing than I anticipated while planning our reunion for months.  Knowing how short this life is, I am forever grateful for that time.

Even if the low that followed when they left was hard, the high of being together again was worth it. Even more… the bond that remains.

January 1st–too soon– we again hugged at the airport.  I didn’t think I’d be able to let go.  I ached and tears flowed as I boarded a bus for Gatwick, waited there till my flight, then prayed I’d sleep on the plane so I wouldn’t feel the physical pain.

When I’d moved to Morocco I used all the packing and planning to postpone the full impact of saying goodbye to them–the hardest part of this decision.  My daughter, unable to handle an airport farewell, hugged and kissed me on a hot, August night in my sister’s driveway the night before my flight.  As she drove away crying, I walked behind the house and fell on my knees from the hurt.  My son, who tried to keep things light, hugged me and smiled the next morning at the airport.  I cried but wouldn’t allow myself to feel the full impact.  I was determined to grieve later– away.  And I did.  The sadness at times in early fall was so terrible only God, who I knew had brought me here and Skype calls from my mom; sister, Penny; and best friend, Kim,  kept me from depression.  I thought I’d paid the pain price for this life change then in full. I was wrong.

But this time my recovery came faster.  Penny reminded me that when we all live under the same roof we don’t always make or value the quality time. She said this move has been life changing.  Our time together now is more intentional, and we recognize it as precious.  She reminded me the holidays always have to end, when we all return to school and work.  My mom, like Penny and her family who I missed seeing at Christmas for the first time in our lives but who has always wanted to see me happy, reminded me that I have a “traveling soul” and this opportunity is who I am and what I’ve wanted for a long time.  January 2nd I began work on a project that kept me busy till I returned to school January 6.   Seeing students and colleagues was nice.

Again I remember that even if I still lived in Nashville, Taylor and Cole would not be living with me on Jenry Court.  As families do after Christmas together, we go back to the “real world” to begin a new year.  But what we experienced was REAL.  The sweetest thing in life is relationship. Being together body and soul 24/7–no phones and computers (other than to check in briefly with family and friends in the US) — for over a week made us even closer.

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First day in the Medina and rooftop sunset
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School Visit
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Rooftop lunch at Chez Joel

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Thankfully the Taj Palace reopened; it is now the Sahara Palace.

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Through Taylor’s Eyes

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After initial culture shock, Taylor wrote this:  “Marrakech has brought so much peace to my life. This has truly been a life changing experience! Today we heard the call to prayer for the first time. I saw the oldest mosque in the city with snow capped mountains in the distance.  Now I know why my mom fell in love with this place. This adventure has been my favorite one yet! Marrakech has captured my heart!”  Last night on Skype she said she feels so much better about my safety.  That everyone she met here was so nice to us.  That Morocco was not what she expected.

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After the cold of London, both of them loved the warm weather and snow-capped mountains in the distance.  Cole said when he first stepped out on my balcony the city looked and felt like Florida.

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Though we’ve always been together in spirit, having them physically here has meant more than I expected.  I can share stories now they better understand.  Now when I go to the souks or grocery, I remember them there. When  I eat at our Indian restaurant,  on Chez Joel’s rooftop, or hear Casanova’s piano man, I remember them there.

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When I watch a movie or see Queen Elizabeth dance in my apartment, I remember them here–and Cole hiding his Bluetooth speaker and Dancing Queen with a note for me to find when they were gone.  A surprise gift that made me laugh and cry.

We laughed a lot.  We appreciate each other more.  For the privilege of being the mother of two amazing human beings, I am forever grateful.

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Before I left Nashville and told Kim how hard it was to leave, she reminded me of a quote by Winnie the Pooh, a favorite friend who lived stuffed in my son’s room when he was little.  It’s true.  I am.

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