Charles Thompson, manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (later acquired by the Ringlings) had built Palms Elysian along Sarasota Bay by 1893…
to bolster his initial purchase of 154 acres for $1650. Thinking that Sarasota could be a great destination for the winter circus season, and a worthy land development opportunity, Thompson persuaded John and Charles Ringling to explore the area in 1911, and convinced John to purchase the home and 20 acres of waterfront property from mutual friend and General Agent of New York Railroad, Ralph Caples, who only three months earlier had acquired the estate from Thompson. By then, Palms Elysian had become a showplace of a home in an area surrounded by log cabins and fishing huts.
John and Mable continued to winter at Palms Elysian through the 1920s, with John and Charles becoming more involved in Sarasota real estate speculation and development, scooping up Bird Key, St. Armands Key and Longboat Key, and owning as much as 25% of the entire Sarasota area.
It was time to replace Palms Elysian with a home befitting the thirteenth wealthiest man in America.
John and Mable’s extensive travels throughout Italy provided her with plenty of inspiration for their proposed palazzo on the bay. Gleaning architectural details from Doge’s Palace and the Bauer-Grünwald Hotel in Venice, Mable turned her drawings and notes over to leading New York architect Dwight James Baum for a cohesive design, and commissioned Owen Burns to build Cà d’Zan (House of John, in Venizzi dialect), a 36,000 square foot Venetian Gothic-styled residence where Palms Elysian once stood.
Construction began in 1924. Every aspect of the building, inside and out, was painstakingly overseen by Mable–from the terra cotta mix and the tile glaze, to the decorative furnishings and flourishes of modern living during the Roaring Twenties.
All the while, John Ringling’s investments (entertainment, real estate, railroads, oil, and cattle) had amassed a fortune of $200 million, and landed him on the cover of Time Magazine.
Cà d’Zan was completed and fully furnished before Christmas 1926 at an astonishing cost of $1.5 million ($21 million today). With 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms, the Ringling’s new home featured a crystal chandelier from the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Florida’s first residential elevator by Otis, an Aeolian organ with 2,289 pipes built into a wall rising two stories,
and an 82-foot-high tower with an open-air landing and a high-domed ceiling.
A similarly-styled gate marked the official entrance to the opulence of Cà d’Zan and The Ringling estate,
where Mable would greet her celebrity guests–the likes of Will Rogers, Jimmy Walker, Flo Ziegfeld, and Billie Burke.
Their stroll continued through lush gardens punctuated by Italian statuary,
past Mable’s rose garden,
and down the pathway marked by a zodiac compass mosaic,
until they reached the jewel on the bay.
Leah and I elected to tour the mansion in two parts, with a small group guided by docents who led us through four floors of fresco art, enormous Italian Renaissance paintings and tapestries, French Baroque furniture, and the Belvedere tower.
However, interior photography was not allowed. I felt like my hands had been tied.
I would have liked to photograph the deep tub in Mr. Ringling’s bathroom–with both freshwater and saltwater taps–carved out a single slab of Sienna marble to accommodate his 6′ 2″ frame.
Consequently, I have no image of the equally impressive 16-foot long German Silver sink installed in the kitchen pantry as a measure of protection for Mable’s oversized collection of Lenox bone china and hand-painted pottery displayed in the many pantry cabinets.
I was also miffed that I couldn’t capture the coffered ceiling of smartly painted Florida pecky cypress in the solarium amid the jeweled tones of the Venetian black glass skylights.
And it was disappointing being unable to record the light flooding through the windows that wrap around the 4th-floor guest bedroom once preferred by Will Rogers, which set the paneled walnut ceiling aglow.
However, with a climb to Belvedere Tower and the photo ban lifted, the lens cap came off, and I was free to enjoy the expansive 360° views…
across Mable’s lush gardens,
and over a rooftop clad in antique Spanish barrel tile from Barcelona buildings personally salvaged by John Ringling and cargo-shipped to Miami.
Legend has it that John Ringling would walk his guests to the top of the tower to show off his Longboat Key land holdings as far as the eye could see.
I must have lost all track of time while shooting to my heart’s content, because when I finally put my camera down, I noticed that I was standing alone, and the tour had moved on without me.
Down the spiral stairs I ambled,
only to discover the tower door locked from the inside. I pounded on the iron-clad door in vain, eventually realizing that nobody could hear me. I considered my limited options: I could look out over east side of the tower, hoping that I could be discovered from below…
…nah…or I could try Leah’s cell phone, and hope that she’d taken it off vibrate. It rang and rang and rang…
9-1-1 was another consideration, but quickly discounted when Leah finally answered on the fifth ring.
“Hello? Why are you calling me?” was all she wanted to know.
“Take a look around you. Do you see me anywhere?” I started.
“No, but I figured you’re off taking pictures somewhere ’cause that’s what you do,” she intoned.
“Well not this time,” I revealed. “This time I’m stuck at the top of the tower with the door locked, and no way of getting down. So do you think you could manage to alert the docent or security, and maybe they could find their way up here to rescue me,” I mentioned calmly.
“I’ll see what I can do. Bye.” and she was gone.
An extra five minutes on the tower landing, and I was still enjoying the view. But when five minutes turned to ten, I called Leah again to make sure I wasn’t being punished or forgotten. This time she answered right away.
“Hi. Remember me?” I was 100% sarcastic.
“I don’t know what to tell you. They said they were on their way,” she quasi-sympathized.
Moments later, I heard the door unlatch. The door swung open, and there was our security escort together with the guide–both looking relieved and embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry,” stated the docent. “I don’t know how something like this could have happened. In all my years of running tours through this house, this has never happened before. Thank goodness, you’re alright,” she gushed.
I followed her down four flights of stairs, with security only steps behind me, probably watching closely to guarantee I didn’t get lost. The tour was officially over.
I rejoined Leah at the back of the palazzo, where we sat for a few minutes on the inlaid marble terrace looking out across the water,
and imagined Mable being rowed around the bay in her authentic Venetian gondola, while contemplating her next trip to Italy.
But her time at Cà d’Zan was brief and bittersweet. She would only have three years at her beloved retreat before succumbing to Addison’s disease with complications from diabetes in 1929.
Although she lived to be 54, for Mable it was la dolce vita.
7 thoughts on “The House of John by Mable”
Good writing. Cheers
Neal, glorious photos! You became lost in the moment- isn’t it great to be able to do that? But also thank goodness for Leah to save you and probably keep you anchored to earth! Hope you two are enjoying the west coast of Florida.
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So true, and also appreciative that Leah understood the gravity of my situation. lol
Your photos are breathtaking!
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Thank you. The architectural detail is extremely inspiring.
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