The Ringlings and Sarasota
Nearly a century ago, in the 1910s, brothers John and Charles Ringling decided to invest in the
future of Sarasota.
John and Charles Ringling - two of the five original Ringling brothers who turned a small
traveling circus into an international entertainment empire - wielded incredible influence on
the economy, development, culture, and character of this same quaint village on beautiful
John Ringling was reputed to be the fifth wealthiest man in the United States when he and
Charles bought an estimated 67,000 acres of what is now Sarasota and Longboat Key as
When the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved its winter quarters to Sarasota in
1927, the serene seaside resort became the hub of circus activity, attracting famous circus
families and artists from around the world. Sarasota quickly became known far and wide as
Circus City, USA.
In 1960, Ringling moved its winter quarters to Venice and the impact of the circus expanded
into the larger Sarasota County area.
Today, the influence of the Ringlings and their circus is still prevalent throughout Sarasota
county - from the Ringling estate that is home to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art,
their personal home Cá d'Zan, and the Ringling Circus Museum and its new Tibbals Learning
Center to the Circus Ring of Fame on St. Armands Circle.
John and Mable Ringling's Estate
Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
When John and Mable Ringling first came to Sarasota, they used an existing frame house as
a winter retreat until 1925 when construction was begun on Cá d'Zan - an opulent mansion where
the Ringlings lived until their respective deaths. After John's death in 1936, the entire
Ringling estate was donated to the State of Florida as a gift to the people of Florida. In
2000, the entire Ringling Estate was placed under the auspices of Florida State University.
Cá d'Zan (meaning "House of John" in the old Venetian dialect)
Recognized today as a showcase for the Mediterranean Revival Style of architecture, Cá d'Zan
was designed by Dwight James Baum of New York City. The inspiration for Cá d'Zan was taken
from the architectural styles of Mable's favorite Venetian hotels - the Danieli, the
Bauer-Grunwald and the Doges Palace.
It took two years and an estimated $1.5 million to build the mansion, plus an additional
$400,000 for lavish furniture, fine art, and collectibles from around the world. John and
Mable moved into Cá d'Zan a few days before Christmas, 1926.
Cá d'Zan remained vacant after the deaths of John and Mable Ringling, but was opened to the
public as part of the Ringling Estate. A $15 million restoration project began in 1996 to
fully restore Cá d'Zan to its original splendor. It was reopened to the public in 2002.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Lovers of the fine arts, John and Mable Ringling were also avid collectors. From the mid-1920s
through the early 1930s, they amassed more than 600 paintings, sculptures decorative pieces
and 25 tapestries from the works of major baroque artists from 1,500 through 1,750, such
as Rubens, Hals, Van Dyck and others.
To preserve, house, and display his impressive fine arts collection, John commissioned
architect John H. Phillips of New York City to design a museum on his property in the late
Designed in the Italian renaissance style, The John and Mable Museum of Art features a large
interior courtyard surrounded on three sides by loggias, and populated with statues of Greek
and Roman gods. An actual-size bronze cast replica of Michelangelo's David overlooks the
To offset expensive building costs, John hired circus employees to help in the construction;
and circus elephants were employed to hoist large pieces of stone into place.
Construction on a new wing of the museum was begun in 2005, the first addition since the
Ringling's Museum of the Circus
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Ironically, John Ringling made no provision in his document for a museum to for the
illustrious history of the Ringling brothers and their circus. However, the museum's board
of directors approved construction of a circus museum on the site of Mable's garage.
The Museum of the Circus opened to the public in 1948, giving visitors their first glimpse
of memorabilia from America's most famous circus - Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Many
famous Sarasotans earned international acclaim as circus artists, and their personal
mementos are on display in the circus museum, including clowns Lou Jacobs, Otto Griebling
and Emmett Kelly; animal trainers Clyde Beatty and Gunther Gebel-Williams; the Zacchini
Human Cannonballs; and the famous Wallenda highwire-walking family.
In 2006, the Tibbals Learning Center opened as part of the museum of the circus. Built through
seed money donated by philanthropist and master model builder Howard C. Tibbals of Tennessee
and Longboat Key, Florida, the 30,600-sq.-ft. facility houses the Howard Bros. Circus, the
world's largest miniature circus, which Tibbals constructed over a 50-year span.
John and Mable Ringling were frequent travelers to Italy, but it was not until the 1950s that
the museum's board agreed to the purchase of an 18th-century Venetian theatre from Asolo,
Italy, for only $10,000. The intimate Asolo Theatre had been dismantled in the 1930s and
placed in storage until it was reassembled on the grounds of the Ringling estate in 1951,
becoming "the only state theatre in Florida."
From 1951 through the late 1990s, the Asolo Theatre Repertory Company presented live
performances of popular plays.
The Asolo theatre was once again dismantled for restoration and installment into the new
Visitors Pavilion. Fully refurbished by the museum's restoration department, the Asolo
reopened to the public in 2006.
Charles and Edith Ringling
Charles and Edith Ringling visited Sarasota for the first time in 1912, and like John and
Mable, decided to make Sarasota their permanent home.
The house cost $880,000 to build, with an additional $300,000 to furnish. Shortly after
Charles and Edith moved into their new home in 1926, he died unexpectedly. Edith lived in the
house with her children, Robert and Hester, until her death in 1953.
Hester and her husband built a home on the north edge of the property, where she lived until
her death in 1965. A theatre enthusiast, Hester had at one time purchased an abandoned theatre
and with her son Stuart, founded the Palmtree Theatre that was used for local plays. Today
it is the home of Theatre Works.
In the early 1960s, the Charles Ringling estate became available for purchase. New College--which had been founded in October 1960 with support of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, First Congregational Church, the Selby Foundation and Honore Palmer--was looking for a campus. College trustees purchased the estate, and the two homes became the first official buildings of New College. Now called College Hall, the Charles and Edith Ringling home is the centerpiece for New College of Florida, the state’s public honors college. The original Music Room in College Hall is used for special events, and the Dining Room is used by the Office of Admissions as a meeting space with prospective students. Hester's home, New College's Cook Hall,houses the offices of the provost and president. Outside the two homes, New College has restored the seawall with a pink balustrade reminiscent of the original seawall from the Ringling era.
Charles invested heavily in real estate, purchasing a large tract of land that became
Always actively promoting business development in downtown Sarasota, Charles Ringling was
working president of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce when he died in 1926. In 1925 he donated
land for county courthouse, and built the 125-room Sarasota Hotel across Ringling Boulevard
(named for Charles). Today the hotel serves as a county government building.
John Ringling bought vast tracts of land on what is today Longboat Key and Lido Key for development and named it Ringling Isles. With local developer Owen Burns, he sold more than $1 million worth of lots soon after he opened his development. Today, lots on Longboat Key, Lido Key and St. Armands are worth several million dollars each.
In 1922, Ringling bought New Edzell Castle on Bird Key in hopes of convincing President Warren Harding to adopt it as his Winter White House. In an attempt to make the entire area more presidential, Ringling named streets on the Ringling Isles after former presidents, and named the circle Harding Circle (which was later changed to St. Armands Circle).
Unfortunately, President Harding died before the plan could be carried out and John's sister Ida Ringling lived in the spacious mansion until her death.
Ida and her husband Harry Whitestone North were parents to John and Henry Ringling North, nephews of John and Charles Ringling, who eventually won majority ownership and management of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after John's death and settlement of his estate.
In 1967, the North brothers sold the legendary circus to brothers Irvin and Israel Feld, concert promoters from Washington, D.C., and Astrodome developer Judge Roy Hofheinz, for $8 million. The sale marked the first time that the legendary circus was personally owned by any individual outside the Ringling, Barnum and Bailey families.
Ringling Isles was located on the barrier island west of Sarasota, and could be reached only
by boat when Ringling and Burns opened their development. John Ringling decided to build
a bridge to connect his land development to the mainland, an undertaking that would take
one year and almost $1 million to complete.
The bridge ran from the end of Golden Gate Point to the island. Construction began on
January 1, 1925.
One year to the day after construction began, John Ringling personally christened the
Ringling Causeway by driving his Rolls-Royce across the span. It was heralded by the local
newspaper as "one of the greatest engineering accomplishments in the South."
Eighteen months after it opened, Ringling donated the bridge to the city for maintenance.
By 1959 the causeway had deteriorated and was demolished, making way for a new bridge that
opened on January 10, 1959.
Ringling College of Art and Design
The Howard Bros. Circus, the world's largest miniature circus.
In addition to being a collector of fine arts, John Ringling was a supporter of the arts,
so much so that he founded the Ringling College of Art and Design - a highly regarded art
school that today serves more than 500 art students in 14 school buildings on a 30-acre campus.
When the Bay Haven Hotel, located on 27th Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard), went
out of business in the early 1930s, a group of educators under the guidance of Dr. Vernan
Kimbrough and Dr. Ludd Spivey, president of Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida,
sought the financial backing of John Ringling to form an art school within it. Ringling
bought the abandoned hotel and placed the newly founded school under the auspices of the
John and Mable Museum of Art.
The School of Fine and Applied Art of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art opened
on October 2, 1931. The school's name was later changed to the Ringling School of Art and
Design and is now called Ringling College of Art and Design.
Winter Quarters (1927-1959)
Of course, despite the Ringling family's great influence on the development of Sarasota, they
remain best known for their circus.
On March 23, 1927, prior to the circus' opening in Madison Square Garden, John Ringling
announced that Sarasota would become the new home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Circus. The Greatest Show on Earth would move its winter quarters to 200 acres on the east
side of town.
In exchange for free advertising space for Sarasota in Ringling's souvenir program, the
Sarasota County Fair Association deeded its entire 200 acres to John Ringling to use as the
circus' new winter quarters.
Winter quarters provided an annual respite for circus performers while giving management
and the creative staff an opportunity to create and produce a new show for the following
year. The rehearsal period lasted from late November until early March when the circus
loaded all its equipment, animals and performers to head north for its annual New York City
John Ringling realized that the public had a great interest in a "behind-the-scenes" look at
circus life, so he opened winter quarters on Christmas Day, 1927, and charged $.25 for
adults and $.10 for children.
Ringling's winter quarters boosted tourism for Sarasota, and reaped a great deal of
publicity for the state of Florida. By 1940, the winter quarters in Sarasota drew
100,000 visitors in one season, making it one of Florida's earliest and most heavily
visited tourist attractions.
However, the folding of the Big Top tent for the last time in Pittsburgh on July 16, 1956,
drastically changed the structure of the three-ring circus. Without the Big Top tent,
several additional service tents and moving equipment, the need for 1,000 roustabouts,
a 75+ car train, or a 200-acre winter quarters greatly diminished.
After the circus pulled out of Sarasota on its 1958 tour, John Ringling North announced
that winter quarters was moving 25 miles south to Venice. The 1959 season marked the last
year that winter quarters were held in Sarasota, and as soon as the circus left town, the
Ringling organization began taking up the train tracks and dismantling the circus buildings.
The land became the subdivision of Glen Oaks Estates in 1963.
Today a historical marker stands at the neighborhood's entrance off Beneva Road at Calliandra
Drive to memorialize the 33-year history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' winter
quarters in Sarasota.
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