Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cà d'Zan

Cà d'Zan, originally uploaded by zuctronic.

On the Gulf shore of Sarasota, Florida, a wealthy magnate of America's gilded age built a mansion in the Venetian style overlooking Sarasota Bay. The view from this site reminded the owner, John Nicholas Ringling, of the lagoon in Venice. This winter home of John and Mable Ringling embodies the expression, "They don't make them like they used to."

John Nicholas Ringling built his fortune from the most unlikely business. Born in Iowa to German immigrants, the five Ringling Brothers started their show in 1870, when John was just 4 years old. They began by charging a penny for admission to "The Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals" This ultimately became the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. By 1926, all of the Ringling brothers had died except John, leaving him the empire.

The Ringling Brothers' circus, the Cà d'Zan, and much of the architecture around Sarasota are from a time when the future was coming on fast. The Chicago Fire in 1871 and the equine influenza epidemic of 1872 (remember everything was horse-driven then) helped trigger a series of global economic crises, beginning with the Panic of 1873. What better way to distract the public from their money woes than a trip to The Greatest Show on Earth? John's circus travels took him around the Victorian world and he started to collect artworks from his travels. By 1929, John had purchased the American Circus Corporation, making him owner of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and every other traveling circus in America.

In 1909 at 43, old John had lived in the colder climes long enough to know that winter is no pleasant affair, so he and his wife Mable began spending their winters in Sarasota, Florida. In 1924 he commissioned the 30-room mansion that he called the Cà d'Zan, which translates roughly to The House of John in Venetian. It was completed by 1926, just in time for the collapse of the Florida real estate market.

In 1927, John moved the winter headquarters of the circus to Sarasota so he no longer had any reason to bundle up for the season. The writing was on the wall for America's economy, though. Bank failures were beginning to lead the country toward the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The crash and subsequent depression cleaned poor John out. He was able to keep his home and his art collection, but he lost his fortune. His wife, Mable, died in June 1929 and in 1932 he was voted out of control of his own business. John died on December 2, 1936 in New York City. He left his home, his art museum, and his entire art collection to the state of Florida.

Who knew the Circus could be so lucrative? Well, I guess I could have known if I'd given it any thought before visiting this place. John and Mable had a good thing going here and I'm glad to be able to witness what's left of his dream. It isn't difficult to imagine the tink tink of silver on fine porcelain or the laughter of wealthy guests being entertained by the Ringlings. These ghosts are all that are left of an era marked by extravagance and luxury. Mr. and Mrs. Ringling, I wish I could have been there.

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