Standing in front of house you feel like you are in a tropical in-between of Downton Abbey and The Great Gatsby. You find yourself almost hoping to see people emerge in 20’s dress holding martinis and bootlegged drinks. The Ca’D’Zan is an architectural and historical lover’s dream. This is the former home of the Ringling Family and sits on the edge of Sarasota Bay in Sarasota, Florida. When you walk into the foyer of the house it just screams opulence, money with more than a hint of excess. Going here when I was in Sarasota last month reminds me why I love calling the town my 2nd home.
The house was built in the 1920’s and shows the decadence of the roaring twenties and the excess of the Ringling family. The Ringling’s were famous collectors of art but were also big fans of Venetian Gothic Architecture which influenced the design and the building of the house as well as with the Ringling Museum. Walking inside takes you back to time in America long ago before Americans were affected by the depression and stock market woes. Ca’D’Zan “The House of John” is the dream home of the Ringling family (John Ringling) who had meager Midwest beginnings. The family achieved the American dream of prosperity before losing nearly everything to debt after their deaths.
Looking west house sits hidden behind the Bay Front Gardens which served as the family’s yard in another decade and another century. I felt like almost everything in this “palace” emitted ghosts of the past as we walked through and it wasn’t hard to ignore. It’s hard to think that almost all of the furniture in the house, the paintings, the tapestries, the statues that one normally would see at a museum were actually in the family’s house while they lived there. According to a tour guide I overheard. In a not too distant past the house was falling apart but after a multimillion dollar restoration it was returned to its former glory in the 1990’s. One thing I would have liked to see was a picture of what it looked like during the days when it was falling apart. Just to give me a little perspective of the change. Like many things in the museum complex the directors choose to ignore some of the dark periods and focus on the glitz and glamour of the family and its history.
As Stacey and I walked though we could see old black and white photos of John Ringling on the terrace entertaining rich friends. Then other pictures of his wife, Mable, with her menagerie of animals which she kept on the property. Stacey was really impressed by the windows, something I never noticed on the last trip. These windows were made of led glass and had 8 framed squares in each window. The squares were tinted various colors and almost reminded me of the effects one would use on Instagram. I thought the old black and white pictures were a nice touch and reminded me that this was actually someone’s home which after seeing the inside is hard to fathom.
The downstairs self guided tour covers areas such as the kitchen, dining room, living room, the sitting room, and the small dining room. One my favorites from the downstairs was John Ringling’s personal bar set off in small room next to the main dining room. It was all dark colored wood with a high bar and just felt really…intimate. On the wall hung pictures him with family and friends. I could see my friend Andrew and I relaxing, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars talking about random bullshit. There is a tour to see the upstairs living area at an additional cost which we did not take part of but I would like to on the next trip. The kitchen was top of the line for its time and it was interesting to see the first version of things we use today such as counter top appliances. The museum offers guided and unguided tours for the house and prices depend on what you would like to do and see.
The Terrace at Ca’D’Zan
My favorite part of this house was the terrace. Its multicolored marble facade stretched longer than the back of the house and sat right on the edge of Sarasota Bay. Like most other homes on the water in Sarasota the “back” of the house is its real showpiece; the part the owners really want to show off. An extravagant marble staircase leads down toward the water where a marble dock sits out into the bay. I can only imagine the size and grandeur of the boats and yachts that may have been parked there from time to time. There is also an intimate walkway which stretches from both sides of the terrace and visitors can walk along the water’s edge.
I sat there imagining the old high society parties and the moonlit strolls couples probably took along it. The museum I am told the museum holds a cocktail hour on the terrace on certain days of the month and is open to the public. As you look out at the bay knowing what the bays lights look like at night in modern times one cannot help but wonder what it looked like nearly 100 hundred years ago. You almost can hear the jazz music floating over gracefully the water.
The Bayfront Gardens
If you’re at museum it’s impossible to notice the beautiful ground that lies in between the art museum, circus museum and the Ca’D’Zan. Quite well groomed paths lead all through this lush and tropical setting. Giant Banyons with their snake like vines that hang down are spread throughout the 66 acre gardens as well as two Shaving Brush; one Tiger Claw; one Monkey Puzzle; two Ear, including the state champion, the largest in Florida; two Rainbow Eucalyptus; and six varieties of bamboo. I don’t know why but personally really enjoy the giant bamboo trees and saw them also while in Summerville, South Carolina at a botanical garden there. Maybe it’s because they are so un-American and something you don’t often see here. Just north of the house in what was called Mable Ringling’s “secret garden” is where she, her husband john and his sister are buried so they are forever a part of the grounds as well as the city they helped build.
The gardens are covered with obscure but beautiful works of art as well as a world class rose garden. If you are there in the spring the flowers are in full bloom and it’s a very romantic walk…or so I’ve been told. On this trip the flowers were not much in bloom but you could see they were close and Stacey and I enjoyed nonetheless. In the middle of the rose garden is a stone gazebo which is old, worn and has no doubt seen so much history. We had a conversation about whether John and his wife used to sit there holding hands together as we were.
A new feature since my last visit…7 years ago is a newly installed playground for kids who join their parents. This is tucked away in the large trees so not disturb the quiet some visitors might want. In pure Ringling fashion though this playground is massive and unique. The gardens as whole is a place where you could spend hours and hours just walking around and relaxing. On this visit I saw 2 painters with their easels set up painting certain views of the grounds. With the nearness to the Art School in Sarasota it’s not unusual to see students hard at work painting, sketching or even just reading in the sun.
The Ringling Museum has been one of my favorite places to go in all of Sarasota ever since my first time in the town in 2007. I would much rather spend a day here then at most of the crowded beaches in the area. It’s fun, educational, peaceful and thought invoking. Combine that with my love of history and it’s just a fun day for Mike. Having Stacey with me made this trip extra special and even more so since she had never been in the complex before so it was brand new to her. One thing that I wish you could do but aren’t allowed too is experience the Gardens and the Ca’D’Zan and night. I think this would be very cool and very romantic especially after a nice dinner.
Despite the fact we made it through all the important sites that I wanted to show her in 1 day I feel this really should be a place you spend at least 2 days at just so you can take it all in and not be rushed. I say this because the museum complex is only open from 10-5 and there is really a lot to see. It really is a place for everyone and if you find yourself in Sarasota Florida I think this really should be in your top 3 things for you to do. For me it would be a certain #2 behind Melville beach on Longboat Key.
Here is a map of the entire estate
For more information on the The Ringling Museum please check out my other Travel posts about it below.