The most famous house in Sarasota—and, with 56 ornate rooms filling its 36,000 square feet, the most spectacular—is bidding farewell to its curator, Ron McCarty, who is retiring in August. McCarty has cared for John and Mable Ringling’s opulently outfitted Venetian Gothic mansion, Ca’ d’Zan (House of John) since a few years after he joined the Ringling Museum 38 years ago. He oversaw its $15 million restoration from 1996 to 2002, poring over everything from tapestries to the couple’s wardrobe and working with master craftsmen from around the world. And he has laid the groundwork for a project to replace the roof and restore the exterior glazed terra-cotta decoration, among other things; about $2 million of the necessary $5 million has been raised to date.
Ca’ d’Zan was designed for the Ringlings by New York architect Dwight James Baum and completed in late 1926 on a lovely piece of bayfront overlooking Ringling’s extensive land holdings on Longboat Key. The couple had traveled throughout Europe acquiring artwork for their museum, and had fallen in love with the Venetian style of architecture. Here are a few of McCarty’s favorite objects in the home.
Watercolor portraits of the Ringlings by famed Russian society portraitist Savely Sorine
“They brought him to Sarasota in 1927 and had their portraits painted in the solarium—all windows and fabulous light,” says McCarty. “John’s is the largest: easily 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide; Mable’s is a third smaller. She’s in an opera box, which shows her love of the arts. He’s portrayed in a landscape which shows him as the biggest developer in Sarasota.” The portraits hang in the Ca’ d’Zan courts.
The dining room ceiling
An Islamic star done in cast plaster made to look like wood grain. Robert Webb Jr., the Ca d’ Zan’s principal artist who lived on the property for three years during the home’s construction, created it. He had trained with John Singer Sargent.
The dining room’s silverplate chandelier
Made in 1905 by Edward F. Caldwell & Company, then the world’s premier lighting company. “They made elegant, custom-made chandeliers for country houses in England as well as in America,” says McCarty.” The beautiful, “very exotic” strapwork holds it to the ceiling.
A 15-foot-long lace table cover
Handmade in Venice, Italy, between 1910 and 1920. “It has incredible botanical patterns and cherubs riding bicycles; to think of the hours spent making something this opulent,” says McCarty. Extremely fragile, it’s only on display during the Christmas holidays.
A three-panel silk French screen
Mable purchased at the Gould estate in New York that depicts bouquets of flowers. “Everything we see in the house has some kind of nature connection,” says McCarty, “and this is the most exquisite thing that depicts flowers.” It's on the first level in the Ca d’Zan court.
A solid sterling silver Tiffany morning glory vase
28 inches tall, by Edward R. Moore, chief designer during the golden age of Tiffany. It was made around 1904, about the time the Ringlings met, and McCarty surmises it could have been a present from John to Mable. It is on display in the reception room.
The 1872 Persian pattern Tiffany flatware
Also designed by Moore, it depicts botanical flowers interwoven into a Persian design. “It was the most expensive and intricate pattern Tiffany ever made, and we have service for eight,” McCarty says. “The family kept half of it.”
The ballroom ceiling
With its Dances of Nations featuring 22 whimsical vignettes of dancing couples. Gilded coffered framework surrounds each painting. The artist was Willy Pogany, a Hungarian painter who painted the murals for the New Amsterdam Theater, home of the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 20th century. Flo Ziegfeld introduced Pogany to the Ringlings.
A foyer cabinet
The perfect copy of a famous cabinet in Versailles made for the king of France. “It had been locked since Mable’s death,” says McCarty. “I got it unlocked by a locksmith and found inside it her monogrammed bridge cards, score cards, and 78 rpm records; fun things that showed her love of entertaining.”
John Ringling’s private bathroom
In yellow Siena marble. “It’s a fabulously masculine Art Deco feature, brought over from Italy,” says McCarty. “When you look at the marble, you see the natural design of a lion; it must have been so unique to find it.”
A 40-inch-wide by 30-inch-high sculpture of the sleeping Ariadne
By Parisian clockmaker Ferdinand Barredienne, one of the finest bronze casting artists of the 19th century. A clock is set into it. The sculpture sits on an onyx base and is gilded with sparking gold metal. (“Obviously I like gaudy things, too,” says McCarty.) The original marble version is in the Vatican; this one is in John's bedroom.
The swimming pool
Built in 1925 and designed by Baum with a central crescent that features a sculpture of Aphrodite, “which stood for love, beauty and pleasure,” says McCarty. A donor recently donated a half-million dollars to restore the pool in McCarty’s honor.
The Belvedere Tower, “my favorite thing of all,” McCarty says, modeled after the Cathedral of Seville bell tower. “When you reach the top you see the beauty of the sky framed with terra cotta Gothic tracery copied from Venice's famous 14th-century palazzo Ca d’ Oro. It’s the star of the show.”