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 Havishamâs home in the 1998 film of âGreat Expectations.â
As a member of the museumâs staff, and later the curator of Caâ dâZan, 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, Caâ dâZan 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, Caâ dâZan, along with Vizcaya in Miami and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, is one of Floridaâs three great golden-age mansions open to the public.
Mr. McCartyâs role gave him an unusual opportunity to delve deeply into family history. The Ringlingsâ 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 âthe center of it all is the great love story of the Ringlings,â Mr. McCarty said in an interview shortly before he retired.
Steven High, executive director of the Ringling, praised Mr. McCartyâs work. âDuring his frequent public presentations, his knowledge and passion has kept their spirit alive,â Mr. High said.
For decades Mr. McCarty, part historian and part sleuth, pursued objects that told the Ringlingsâ 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 Ringlingâs 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 Mableâs 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. âMy sisters remember playing with them when they were little girls,â recalled Chris Schueler, the grandson of Mableâs sister Dulcy Burton.
âThe family had considered giving them back to the Ringling,â Mr. Schueler explained. âThen, about three years ago, we met Ron and fell in love with him.â Still, he said, âIt was funny to see the curators using white gloves to handle all those things that my sisters had played with as children.â
Sometimes discoveries were the result of going through the Ringlingsâ bureaus. All their drawers had been locked since John Ringlingâs death in 1936, probably because he kept them that way. By the 1990s, the keys had disappeared.
âWe got a locksmith to open the bureau, and we found all John Ringlingâs Charvet ties lying in rows,â Mr. McCarty said. âIt was spectacular,â he added, using a favorite term.
Much of Caâ DâZan was the product of Mrs. Ringlingâs passion for architecture and decoration. âThe house was really her creation,â 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. âThat was like having your own private jet today,â 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 Caâ dâZan. Italy was their shared infatuation. âThe house was inspired by Caâ dâOro, the dogeâs palace in Venice,â 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 houseâs glamour has been an exhilarating, if exhausting, labor of love.
He had come to Caâ dâZan well trained for the work. âI grew up in Kansas City, and I wanted to be a painter,â 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 museumâs works of art that were lent for exhibitions around the world. On one cargo trip from Japan to the United States, he recalled, âI was traveling with works of art on the same plane with racehorses, exotic snakes and very expensive racecars.â
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. âIt could have been duplicated by Scalamandre,â Mr. McCarty said. âBut we would have had to wait two years, and the cost would have been $82,000 a chair.â 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.
âEvery day was exciting because it was bringing the house back to life and filling it with objects the Ringlings actually had,â he said. âEven for historic houses, that is quite rare.â