Truly the most spectacular building in Sarasota, the breathtaking Ca d'Zan Mansion was the Florida home of circus magnate John Ringling and his wife, Mable. Purported to be the last of the Gilded Age mansions built in the United States, the home overlooks the waters of the Sarasota Bay and is undoubtedly the most photographed building in Sarasota.
Construction on Ca d'Zan - literally "House of John'' in Venetian dialect - began in 1924 during the height of the success of the Ringling Bros. Circus. It took just over a year to build this Venetian Gothic masterpiece and the cost at the time was $1.5 million. The home was designed by New York architect Dwight James Baum and was built by local developer Owen Burns.
The Ringlings loved everything about Venice and wanted their winter home to resemble the structures they admired on their trips to Italy. They chose the Sarasota Bay location because the waters resembled those of the Grand Canal of Venice. In addition, design elements in their home were modeled after some of the great buildings of Venice, such as the Doge's Palace and the Ca d'Oro, a splendid 15th century Venetian palace. It is said that Mable Ringling possessed a portfolio full of postcards, photos, drawings, and other items from Venice that aided architects in the design of Ca d'Zan.
The mansion is 200 feet long and includes approximately 36,000 square feet of interior space. It boasts 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. It stands five stories tall and includes a full basement. The highest point of the mansion is a belvedere tower that stretches to 81 feet and includes an open-air overlook.
Materials used for the exterior of the mansion include terra cotta T-blocks, concrete, and brick, covered with stucco and ornamented with shiny, glazed tiles. The terrace that fronts Sarasota Bay is made of both imported and domestic marble and the tiled roof is constructed of 16th century tiles imported from Spain.
Inside, deep reds and gold dominate the d‚cor. Reproduction Louis XV furnishings bought from major auction houses in New York are resplendent and indicative of the opulence of the Gilded Age. About 95 percent of what visitors see today are original pieces purchased by Mable.
Artwork is everywhere inside the home as the Ringling's were major collectors of art. Pieces include not only paintings and sculpture but also tapestries that span several centuries. Even the insides of closets were hand-painted with bucolic scenes of the Venetian countryside.
Mable Ringling died in 1929 and John in 1936. Ca d'Zan became the property of the state in 1946, after much red tape. Unfortunately, between that time and the 1990s, little was done to preserve the historic structure. However, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Thankfully, a $15 million restoration project was initiated in 1996 and completed in 2002, and the building was repaired and restored to - for the most part - its original state.
Today, visitors can enjoy docent-led tours of the mansion, narrated by museum aficionados who can share colorful anecdotal stories about the circus magnate and his wife. It remains one of Florida's most visited attractions.
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