Mr. Chatterbox - March 2002

By staff March 1, 2002

The first time I visited Cà d'Zan must have been 25 years ago. I was but a wee lad, of course, in Sarasota for a vacation, never dreaming that I would one day end up living here. Back in those days the main function of the Ringling Museum was to give tourists something to do on rainy days; its main competition in this regard was Jungle Gardens and something I think was called Circus World, a lame and low-end attraction that offered circus acts for the undiscriminating. Even so, I remember being unimpressed with Cà d'Zan. The big old mansion was dark, dreary and dated, full of ugly furniture from the '20s and an atmosphere that only a Miss Havisham could love. If anyone asked, I would tell them to skip it.


Then, after I moved here and assumed my role of society's pet, the place took on a new and happier aspect. This was back in the days when Larry Ruggiero ran the Ringling, and say what you will about him, he sure knew how to use the museum as a force for social advancement in the local community. Cà d'Zan became party central. The Grand Hall, with its two-and-a-half-story ceiling and its black and white marble floor, was the scene of many great evenings of revelry and wine. I can still see Helen Griffith, her wig askew, out on the dance floor with Ted Van Antwerp, or the late Norman Scherman off in the corner with Bob Johnson, deciding who our next Congressman would be. Perhaps the peak of this era was a special dinner during the first Sarasota French Film Festival back in 1989. The place was packed with the cream of Sarasota society and an equal number of French people, the men looking very intellectual and puffing on Gauloises, and the women in chic little black dresses and those bizarre hats that only French women seem able to pull off. The Grand Hall never looked lovelier, the candlelight glowing and camouflaging the crumbling walls and the water dripping down onto the tables from the various leaks in the roof. A Frenchman read a long speech-in French-about the aesthetics of filmmaking and the Sarasota contingent, quite drunk by this time, began to toss their dinner rolls at him. Ah, those were the days.


But then in 1999, the place closed. I have a feeling the Fire Marshal may have had a hand in this, for by this time Cà d'Zan was literally falling apart. They were actually draping canvas over the walls, trying to keep out the elements. The restoration began. But like so many restorations, it did not go smoothly. The place was in worse shape than anyone had imagined, and there were some problems with asbestos and way too little money. Over the years people forgot about Cà d'Zan. It was history, a part of Sarasota that had vanished, like the Winter Quarters or Zinn's Restaurant with its famous Waterfall Room.


Well, Cà d'Zan is finally about to reopen next month, and get ready for a shock. The long and costly renovation has been a wild success. Not only does it look great but you see the place in a completely new light. This is not just some big old house of purely local interest. This is the Jazz Age incarnate. This is like Gatsby's mansion in West Egg. Cà d'Zan has finally met its destiny as the iconic symbol of the Roaring '20s. People will be flocking from all over to see this place. If I were you I'd buy stock in all those new Courtyard Marriotts and Hilton Inns up by the airport. They're going to be packed with tourists. Architectural Digest is coming to photograph it. And they're planning to put it on the cover!


One of Cà d'Zan's great charms is that it looks like no other place in the United States. It is built in the Venetian Gothic style, of terra cotta tile, with arched windows and little aurioles, a campanile, and a gondola mooring. Now, the Venetian Gothic style is very rare, even in Venice, but Mable Ringling talked her husband into it. The interior is more Spanish Mediterranean, but just about every Beaux Arts style is represented. John's bedroom is French Empire, rather Napoleonic in feeling, and Mable's-they had separate rooms in the fashion of wealthy couples of the time-is more feminine and flowery. There are painted ceilings everywhere and enough pecky cypress to re-forest Myakka State Park. And when you visit the place, be sure and pay for the deluxe tour, where you get to go up on the third floor and check out the playroom decorated by Willy Pogany. He was one of the great set designers of the 1920s, and the space is covered with whimsical drawings based on commedia del l'arte figures. At first glance these are charming and cute; only on closer examination do you realize that strange things are going on. People are getting stabbed and chased; one character holds a screaming cat over a cauldron of boiling water. It's the Sistine Chapel, Sarasota-style.


Cà d'Zan has been restored to the way it was in 1928; in other words, when it still looked brand-new but had settled into being a home. The floors are bright and shiny, the upholstery crisp and unfaded, all the murals and faux surfaces still uncovered by grime. Those odd windows, with their panes of glass in various shades of green, citrine and purple-and which did so much to darken the house-now sparkle and gleam. Granted you still can't really see outside, but back in those days I'm sure the windows were designed to be open most of the time.


The real change in Cà d'Zan is the way its look has come back into fashion. Two-story living rooms; richly upholstered furniture; painted ceilings and walls (often depicting the owner's interests and hobbies); the latest in home entertainment centers (there is an enormous organ hidden in the wall); plus elaborate master suites and big, dramatic accent pieces-it's the granddaddy of them all, the prototype of the upscale Florida home, a prophet before its time. If Robb and Stucky were smart they'd take out a corporate sponsorship of the whole exhibit.


But what Cà d'Zan makes you realize most of all is something about Sarasota. Back in the 1920s, when the rest of Florida was truly the boondocks, we were-because of John and Mable Ringling-part of the big and glamorous outside world. The great celebrities of the day came to visit: Will Rogers, Florenz Ziegfeld, New York's mayor Jimmy Walker. And they all stayed at Cà d'Zan, in one of the guest rooms you will see on the tour. Those larger-than-life men danced out on the terrace-though hopefully not with each other-they sailed on the Ringlings' famous yacht (now sunken off Lido Key), and finally, their visit complete, they left town on the Jomar, the Ringlings' private railroad car (now derelict in some field east of town). And Cà d'Zan helps you picture that Great Gatsby-esque era in American history better than any building, with the possible exception of San Simeon, Pickfair, or Sloppy Joe's Bar in Havana.


The big problem with Cà d'Zan is that you can no longer have parties there. There will be one big blow-out, "Cà d'Zan Celebrazione," on April 19 for 800 guests (and one smaller gathering of 200 on April 11, called "Dinner with John and Mable Ringling), but after that the only space available for rental will be the terrace facing Sarasota Bay. "You mean I can't get married here?" I asked Aaron DeGroft, the curatorial genius largely responsible for the success of the renovation. He turned white at the very thought. I certainly hope he reconsiders this short-sighted policy. After all, in the final analysis, what's a museum really for?

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