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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Until you can visit in person, virtual options are here:
Spring Break Treat April 1–my favorite artist on the Big Screen here.
Florida’s Cultural Coast: Part 1