Adventure U.S.

Ringling’s Creation: Sarasota On the Gulf

Ringling’s creation is the best way to describe Sarasota on the Gulf, an artsy city located in West Florida. Known as the “Circus Capital of the World,” it was home to circus impresario John Ringling. But he had more than one love. Ringling wanted to turn this small city located on the Gulf of Mexico into the Greatest Arts Capital of Florida.

Sarasota on the Gulf is a story of love and loss. The city today bears John Ringling’s indelible stamp as clearly as any poster printed to advertise the Ringling Bros. Greatest Show on Earth. He set in motion what would become a European-style city on the bay.

“Its story begins nearly a century ago, with the circus impresario and his beloved wife’s shared love for Sarasota, Italy, and art.”

Ringling.org

In 1911, the Ringlings chose to purchase 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota. The town’s population totaled 3,000. He ignored the siren call of Palm Beach and Miami. He saw a bright future for Sarasota on the Gulf. In 1912, they began to spend their winters in Sarasota, becoming active in the community. They gradually purchased more land, until they owned more than 25% of Sarasota’s total real estate.

Ca’ d’Zan: House of John

At the height of their circus empire’s success during the Roaring Twenties, John and Mable Ringling built an opulent mansion. Work commenced in 1924.

Sited on their 20-acre waterfront lot in Sarasota, the mansion was christened Ca’ d’Zan (House of John). New York architect Dwight James Baum designed it.

Fascinated by Italian culture, the Ringlings chose to build a Venetian palace. Mable Ringling supervised all aspects of the construction, from the mixing of the terra cotta to the glazing of the tiles. Her portrait hangs in the grand ballroom.

Mable Ringling’s portrait

Venetian Design

The Sarasota Bay would be their Venetian Grand Canal. The $1.5 million palazzo stood five stories tall. There were 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. The 36,000-square-foot mansion took two years to build.

Ca’ d’Zan is located on the back of the Ringling estate. The marble terrace overlooks Sarasota Bay—a natural infinity pool. Mable kept a Venetian gondola moored at the terrace. She would take guests on gondola rides on Sarasota Bay. Ringling and his guests could savor panoramic views of the sparkling bay throughout the mansion.

“Blue water and green and lavender in the bay. Lovely at sundown. Beautiful light and air.”

John Ringling

As world-class entertainers, John and Mable threw lavish parties. Hollywood came knocking at their door, along with the rich and want-to-be-rich plus circus celebrities.

Crystal chandelier purchased from the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City

The doors between rooms would be flung open and furniture moved to create a dance floor. Graceful couples would spill out onto the 13,000-square-foot terrace to dance under the stars.

Sarasota on the Gulf was a magical escape for Ringling’s friends and business associates. He liked to take his guests up to the mansion’s tower where he could show all the land he owned.

Arts Collection

To decorate their mansion, the Ringlings made frequent trips to Europe to buy paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and artwork.

The entrance foyer features 17th century Flemish tapestries

Ringling was a self-made millionaire but he was motivated by the same urge to collect art as other Gilded Age industrialists, such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Morgan.

Inspired by Italy’s culture, the Ringlings chose to build their 21-gallery art museum modeled after the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. His collection featured the Old Masters, including Velazquez, Poussin, van Dyke, and Rubens.

Ringling’s Museum of Art

The massive courtyard runs the length of the art museum. It features figures from Greek and Roman mythology. There is a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David. Visitors can leisurely relax in chairs on the veranda to study and ponder the sculptures.

View of bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David
Design modeled after Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

The Ringling Museum of Art opened to the public in 1931. It was Ringling’s dream to “promote education and art appreciation, especially among our young people.”

Sadly, Mable did not live long enough to see the museum’s completion. And John fell into debt during the Depression. After his death in 1936, it would take a decade for lawyers to settle his estate. Ringling bequeathed the museum to the people of Florida. This gift established The Ringling as the State Art Museum of Florida. It is administered by Florida State University.

Sarasota on the Gulf

Ringling’s legacy lives on nearly 85 years since his death. He saw such a bright future for Sarasota.

“He created the idea of Sarasota as a place of beauty, wealth and sophistication, and his spirit can still be found all over town.”

Robert Plunket

Sarasota on the Gulf lived up to its potential. Thanks to Ringling’s imagination, the city became a haven for artists. Today, Sarasota boasts two art museums, multiple theaters, an opera house, and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Downtown. It is also the gateway to Ringling’s Lido Key, which he once envisioned as the Winter White House.

About

The Ringling is located in Sarasota, Florida. It is home to the State Art Museum of Florida, the historic Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, Bayfront Gardens, an Art Library, the Circus Museums, and the Historic Asolo Theater. The Museum of Art offers free admission on Mondays. The gardens and grounds are free to visit.

Museum Admission includes entry to the Museum of Art, Circus Museum, and Bayfront Gardens. This Admission does not include entry to Ca’ d’Zan. An adult ticket costs $25. Ask about special rates for military, personal care workers, teachers, and students. Admission does not include entry to Ca’ d’Zan. It costs an additional $10.

There are also Bayfront Garden walking tours are offered from November 1 through March 28. The non-member ticket costs $15. Volunteer guides show the botanical specimens on the estate while providing a historic overview of the development of the estate. There are over 2,350 trees in the Ringling Arboretum.

Sarasota is located 37 miles from St. Petersburg and 60 miles from Tampa.

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15 Comments

  • Reply
    Alex
    October 9, 2021 at 9:42 am

    The city has such beautiful architecture and such a story! Pinning this post for when I visit! Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Terri
      October 9, 2021 at 12:37 pm

      Sarasota’s story is indeed fascinating. I love how you can still see Ringling’s influence nearly a century later!

  • Reply
    Irma R
    October 9, 2021 at 12:40 pm

    Dear Terri, as always you prose is so engaging! Thank you for transporting me to such amazing location!

    So beautifully European and yet in our shores!

    Wonderful!
    Irma

    • Reply
      Terri
      October 9, 2021 at 9:06 pm

      Thank you Merci Gracias! A beautiful place to visit – Italy on the shores on Florida’s Gulf Coast!

  • Reply
    Shannon
    October 9, 2021 at 1:37 pm

    This area is beautiful! I attended a wedding at Ca’ d’Zan, it was stunning!

    • Reply
      Terri
      October 9, 2021 at 9:05 pm

      WOW! I bet the wedding was incredible.

  • Reply
    Catherine - Savvy Family Travel
    October 9, 2021 at 5:57 pm

    I never new this mansion existed, how fascinating! It reminds me of Vizcaya, which was another shock to find so much European flair in Florida. I’d love to explore.

  • Reply
    Joanna
    October 9, 2021 at 7:14 pm

    Ringling has certainly left his mark. I enjoyed reading the story and history you have shared in this post.

    • Reply
      Terri
      October 9, 2021 at 9:04 pm

      Thank you so much Joanna! I agree that Ringling left his mark on West Florida.

  • Reply
    Teja
    October 10, 2021 at 3:52 am

    Huh, I didn’t realise Ringling was actually his last name!

    • Reply
      Terri
      October 16, 2021 at 1:38 pm

      The circus is named after the Ringling family. There were multiple brothers who helped run their circus. John was the youngest.

  • Reply
    Natalie
    October 11, 2021 at 4:32 am

    Wow, gorgeous! I never knew this about Sarasota and it was never on my radar (and I certainly never thought of Florida as a particularly cultural place), but now I’d love to visit to see the Ringling!

    • Reply
      Terri
      October 16, 2021 at 1:38 pm

      Sarasota may be one of Florida’s coolest cultural cities. I was so impressed with its museums and street art.

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