Restoring the House the Ringling Circus Built

Restoring the House the Ringling Circus Built

Sarasota, Fla. — In the 1920s, John Ringling and his wife, Mable, built their dream house in Sarasota, Fla.: a 56-room Venetian Gothic palazzo named Ca’ d’Zan, or House of John.

It was a showplace that they filled with treasures purchased around the world, including 400 objects from a mansion in Newport, R.I., that were sold when Alva Vanderbilt divorced William Vanderbilt.

But when the Ringlings, whose wealth came from the circus named for John and his four brothers, died after falling into debt, the house and the associated art gallery were taken over by the State of Florida and became the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Over time, the house fell into such disrepair that it served as Paradiso Perduto, the shambles of a castle that is Miss Havisham’s home in the 1998 film of “Great Expectations.”

As a member of the museum’s staff, and later the curator of Ca’ d’Zan, Ron McCarty observed the decline with dismay. But Mr. McCarty, who retired this year, played a crucial role in not only restoring the house, but also in bringing back memorabilia from when the Ringlings lived there.

His work underscores the challenges in maintaining historical properties. Having been closed for a decade, starting in 1936, Ca’ d’Zan had suffered from decay. Mold and mildew had grown on the walls, and the furniture fabrics had deteriorated.

But in 1996, fueled with funds from the government, foundations and individuals, efforts began to restore the house to its original allure. Today, Ca’ d’Zan, along with Vizcaya in Miami and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, is one of Florida’s three great golden-age mansions open to the public.

Mr. McCarty’s role gave him an unusual opportunity to delve deeply into family history. The Ringlings’ relatives, former business associates and employees could provide tales and objects.

Over the decades, Mr. McCarty has remained fascinated by the family. John Ringling and his brothers made the circus the centerpiece of American entertainment, but at “the center of it all is the great love story of the Ringlings,” Mr. McCarty said in an interview shortly before he retired.

Steven High, executive director of the Ringling, praised Mr. McCarty’s work. “During his frequent public presentations, his knowledge and passion has kept their spirit alive,” Mr. High said.

For decades Mr. McCarty, part historian and part sleuth, pursued objects that told the Ringlings’ story. Daily, over 20 years, he said he logged on to eBay, where he found troves of photographs. He even found a 1927 issue of Country Life that described how the house looked when it first opened.

If Mable Ringling’s closets were empty when Mr. McCarty took over, they are not now. Family members have given him over 50 pieces, from a hat box with Mable’s name on it to a black crepe beaded gown with sequins from French & Company that cost $1,800 in 1923.

When Mrs. Ringling died, her clothes were dispersed among family members. “My sisters remember playing with them when they were little girls,” recalled Chris Schueler, the grandson of Mable’s sister Dulcy Burton.

“The family had considered giving them back to the Ringling,” Mr. Schueler explained. “Then, about three years ago, we met Ron and fell in love with him.” Still, he said, “It was funny to see the curators using white gloves to handle all those things that my sisters had played with as children.”

Sometimes discoveries were the result of going through the Ringlings’ bureaus. All their drawers had been locked since John Ringling’s death in 1936, probably because he kept them that way. By the 1990s, the keys had disappeared.

“We got a locksmith to open the bureau, and we found all John Ringling’s Charvet ties lying in rows,” Mr. McCarty said. “It was spectacular,” he added, using a favorite term.

Much of Ca’ D’Zan was the product of Mrs. Ringling’s passion for architecture and decoration. “The house was really her creation,” Mr. McCarty said.

Both John and Mable came from large families and meager origins. But by their 1905 wedding, John Ringling was already rich enough to have commissioned a 79-foot Pullman train car. “That was like having your own private jet today,” Mr. McCarty explained.

Visits to friends in Sarasota persuaded the Ringlings to buy a home on the bay. But it was not until 1924, after they had traveled extensively in Europe, that they began building Ca’ d’Zan. Italy was their shared infatuation. “The house was inspired by Ca’ d’Oro, the doge’s palace in Venice,” Mr. McCarty said.

World-class shoppers who loved nothing so much as furniture that had once been owned by the elite, the Ringlings filled their home with objects from estate sales.

For Mr. McCarty, who became the official curator in 2000, helping to restore the house’s glamour has been an exhilarating, if exhausting, labor of love.

He had come to Ca’ d’Zan well trained for the work. “I grew up in Kansas City, and I wanted to be a painter,” he recalled. But lured by a steady salary from the Ringling, Mr. McCarty jumped when, in 1980, he was offered a job as a registrar of the historical records at the museum complex.

Among his tasks was to serve as a courier for the museum’s works of art that were lent for exhibitions around the world. On one cargo trip from Japan to the United States, he recalled, “I was traveling with works of art on the same plane with racehorses, exotic snakes and very expensive racecars.”

By the mid-1990s, Mr. McCarty had begun working on his gargantuan restoration project. One year was dedicated solely to the asbestos problem. Each object had to be moved out and cleaned.

In many cases, Mr. McCarty said, the fabrics had to be replaced. For example, the original material on the four Louis XIV throne chairs was hand-loomed Genovese velvet. “It could have been duplicated by Scalamandre,” Mr. McCarty said. “But we would have had to wait two years, and the cost would have been $82,000 a chair.” Instead, Mr. McCarty tapped into an extensive network of experienced curators for a less expensive alternative.

That was hardly the end of the work. Mr. McCarty had overseen the restoration of the gatehouse and the repair of damage from hurricanes. But despite the challenges, he said he enjoyed the job.

“Every day was exciting because it was bringing the house back to life and filling it with objects the Ringlings actually had,” he said. “Even for historic houses, that is quite rare.”

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