Magnificent Obsession

By staff October 1, 2007

The romantic notion of Venice is embodied in Sarasota, from our backyard canals and barrier islands to our own Lido Beach and John and Mable Ringling’s bayfront residence, Cà d’Zan. The home’s name, which translates to “house of John,” is as Venetian as its architecture. No expense was spared as artisans carved paneling, crafted columns, and gilded and hand-painted ceilings in the Ringlings’ quest to re-create the exquisite Venetian Gothic architecture of their favorite canal-front palaces and hotels. Mable’s attention to every detail in Cà d’Zan’s design and construction is legendary, and unrivaled in Sarasota. Until now.

A retired Midwestern couple has just completed their grand obsession: a 21st-century incarnation of 15th-century Venetian Renaissance elegance. Their new home on Longboat Key took six years from concept to completion. It’s huge: 19,000 square feet under air; 36,000 under roof including loggias and garages. In comparison, Cà d’Zan is 22,000 feet, with 32 rooms and 15 bathrooms.

With far fewer rooms, and embellished with every modern bell and whistle, the new beachfront property is a more contemporary ode to the art, history and architecture of Italy. The finished product is eclectic rather than a literal translation, says architect Clifford Scholz. “It’s a mix of the Italianate Renaissance period and beachfront Florida original,” he says, explaining that most people today want homes of eclectic style.

Still, the lure of Venice is unmistakable. “There is a certain order in Italian architecture that we find very appealing,” says the wife, whose background is in art history and interior design.

That order is evident in the gathering room, a remarkable atrium lined with Tuscan colonnades supporting ethereal groin vaults. Designer Fabiola Softas, ASID, of Anne Folsom Smith Interior Design, which provided design services for the home, explains that this is the core of the house, reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance courtyard. It soars three stories high, with natural light flowing through a domed skylight and custom palladium-crowned windows. All living space in the home opens to this sun-drenched atrium.

“The attention to detail is what I love most about the project,” says the wife. “The architects, designer and builder [Collingwood Construction Group] were told in the beginning that we would have very strong opinions about the house design. They were all pros and didn’t object.”

Softas agrees. “This was not a case where the owners said, ‘Go build me a house,’” she emphasizes. “They were intimately involved in every step, from concept to selection of the very last lamp.”

The care taken with interior craftsmanship and the breathtaking choice of materials are impressive. Indeed, workmanship in the home rivals that of the Ringling era, when it was common to import artisans to achieve this level of detail.

“We are very proud that all the artists and craftspeople except the muralist were local,” says Softas.

The embodiment of the Venetian theme, the dining room’s 30-foot-high barrel ceiling and groin vaults are completely hand painted. Joe Brown, a classical muralist whose work appears in Oprah Winfrey’s Fisher Island home and is often photographed in Architectural Digest, built a special scaffold to paint the ceiling with images important to the client.

“The ceiling incorporates Neptune, pearls and horses, all elements she loves,” Softas explains. Even corner cameos of the owners’ grandchildren are included. On a dining room wall, Brown painted a Venetian gondola scene on site. “Before coming to Sarasota, he found clothing of the era, hired live models and photographed them,” Softas says. The mural includes musicians at the request of the owner; a doorway to the service kitchen is camouflaged, integrated into the painting.

In the grand salon, Brown painted Italian landscape scenes on the wood of recessed arches in the custom entertainment wall by EuroTech Cabinetry. Columns in the cabinetry aren’t mere ornaments: they open for storage. Still, the grand salon’s most memorable feat of craftsmanship is Eurotech’s 46-by-26-foot coffered ceiling.

Although the size and scale of the room could have been overpowering, the overall effect is inviting. “As formal as the house appears, there are very informal spaces throughout,” says Anne Folsom Smith. “Every space has comfort levels and fun places, so it never feels stuffy or overdone.”

The grand salon, for example, is divided into three distinct areas: a living room with seating oriented to the entertainment wall and Gulf views, a game area, and a traditional paneled bar at the south end of the room. Local artist Virginia Hoffman created all the decorative glasswork for the home; in this room she used seeded glass in palladium windows on the wall behind the bar.

Jennifer Pace of Grand Illusions applied trompe l’oeil to create master bedroom walls seemingly made entirely of fabric, the draperies pulled back with hardware that looks so real you want to touch them. The bedroom ceiling tray is painted to exactly match the sky outside at certain times of day. Elsewhere, faux finishes and stencils were the work of Lori Loveberry George.

In this home, the Renaissance art of gilding still flourishes, from the carved wood frame of the couple’s bed to the gold-leafed barrel ceiling of their master bath. Another ancient finish was also specified by Softas: scagliola stone. A company in Atlanta has revived the art of grinding marble, mixing it with metal, packing it by hand and forming it into molds. When applied to balusters, columns and in this home, even the kitchen range hood, pre-cast architectural features appear to be made from stone.

New treasures of craftsmanship unfold with every turn. A birdcage elevator of glass and cast aluminum is faux finished to gleam like bronze; a stepped onyx bathroom vanity counter almost glows in the powder room, which also has a drapery wall that is completely trompe l’oeil. The powder bath boasts custom leaded glass doors by Hoffman, and the multi-talented artist also did the hand-turned metal on staircase railings and balconies.

For more intimate conversation, guests are brought to a parlor. The room’s second level is a stained mahogany library accessed by a custom spiral staircase. Here EuroTech applied three variations of the same molding to Softas’ specification, to balance the extreme height of the 17-foot floor-to-ceiling fireplace.

A sunroom with access to the swimming pool is an easy-care space with its own ice cream parlor and treated leather seating that’s impervious to wet bathing suits. “The home is lived in, and often used by four generations of this family,” says Softas.

The owners and their team have managed to bring the past into the future, celebrating Renaissance craftsmanship without reproducing it exactly. Just as the design conjures images of the Venice they love to visit, so do the views they now enjoy every day. “Venice has a golden glow of light that surrounds everything and reflects in the water much as it does in the Gulf of Mexico,” says the wife.

But in Sarasota, she loves the way colors change hourly, from opalescent turquoise to deep cobalt blue. “At sunset the blue sky adds purples, pinks, reds, oranges and yellows. And the last of the sun’s rays add sparkling gold highlights to all of it. It is purely magnificent,” she concludes. Magnificent, indeed.

Carol Tisch is style editor of Sarasota Magazine and writes a weekly blog, Retail Therapy, at

The Home Team

Interior architecture and design: Anne Folsom Smith Interior Design, Sarasota (941) 957-0434,; Fabiola Softas, ASID, lead designer; Robert O’Brien, lead interior architect

Architecture: Clifford M. Scholz, AIA, Clifford M. Scholz Architects Inc., Sarasota (941) 923-2400,

General contractor: ML Collingwood, Sarasota (941) 365-8333

Landscaping: Michael A. Gilkey Inc, Sarasota (941) 924-0132

Additional contributors:

EuroTech Cabinetry - Custom built in cabinetry and woodworking

Advanced Audio - Audio/Video/home theater/lighting controls

Virginia Hoffman - Decorative art glass and metal.

Grand Illusions - Decorative Faux finishes, stencils and trompe l’oeil

Heritage Glass - Glass and mirror work

European Marble - Marble work and inlays

Galleries At Northgate - decorative framing for artwork

Joseph Brown Fine Art - Fine Art and Murals in dining room and living room

Country Store Interiors - Window treatments

Lori Loveberry George - Faux finishes and stencil

A.C.Holiday - Antique restoration

Upholstery Shoppe - Upholstering and recovering of furniture

George Leonard - Carpentry and assisted with installation of furniture and artwork

Jim McCaan - Carpentry and assisted with installation of furniture and artwork

Ron Grantham - Carpentry and assisted with installation of furniture and artwork

Langford Elevators and Lifts - Custom elevator

Yarnall United - Storage, moving and delivery of furnishings

Loren Schuman - Custom art glass

Loom - Provided and installed carpeting

Comtemporary Cabinetry - Custom cabinetry and closets

The Lamplighter - Decorative light fixtures

Lighting Gallery - Decorative light fixtures

The Plumbing Place - Provided Plumbing fixture

Franklin Lighting - Decorative light fixtures

Gene McCall - Antique Restoration

Mullets Appliances - Provided all appliances

Bill Farmer - Carpentry and assisted with installation of furniture and artwork

Artistic Metal - Decorative metal working and Gates

Aqua Plumbing - Installation of all plumbing

Baber Painting - Interior and exterior painting

Hardesty Electric - Electrical work

Chenet Stairs - Custom staircase (in Parlor)

Floors By Design - Exterior stone flooring

Stone Age - Interior custom stone work, trim, balusters and columns

Stone Crafters - Exterior Decorative concrete precast trim and balusters

Lou Buchanan Original Art Work (Auntie Mame)

Myriad Effects – Computer Animation

Jeff Luce – Carpentry and assisted with installation of furniture and artwork

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