If you plan to be in the vicinity of Sarasota, Florida, be sure to set aside time to visit The Ringling. Listed as the top tourist attraction in Sarasota by Trip Advisor, The Ringling was the estate of John and Mabel Ringling. The many exhibits provide something of interest for all ages. including the circus museums, Venetian style mansion that was home to Mabel and John, the magnificent formal gardens and lush grounds, and a first rate museum.
Five hours was enough time to skim many of the exhibits, but I look forward to returning to explore more of the galleries and grounds and take at least a few tours with the docents.
While we started with the Art Museum, the most unusual exhibits were in the circus museums, so give some careful consideration to your time and the interests of your group because you should absolutely not miss these buildings.
We approached the Museum by walking past the Dwarf Garden and over a bridge. The many dwarf representations of commedia dell’arte players were hidden among the plants forming a circle around a great banyan tree. There were many banyan trees on the estate and these are a wonder of nature. While they may start as one tree, the banyan sends out many aerial roots that hang down and reach the ground where they become additional mature trunks of the tree. Over the many years since their planting, they continue to spread out to form canopies that cover sizeable areas.
While the Museum itself had many interesting galleries including European art, fascinating sculptures, some modern glass which will eventually be moved to its own wing, and a very interesting traveling exhibit of Islamic Art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the most noteworthy aspect of the museum is the stunning and expansive Italian Renaissance courtyard and gardens. The open porticos surround the courtyard on three sides, forming a U shape.
There are three terraced levels in the courtyard including reproductions of two classical fountains among the water features. Throughout the gardens are casts of classical statues. The open end of the courtyard faces the bay and links the two wings with a bridge. A cast of Michelangelo’s David is in the center of this bridge. Standing here, we could fully appreciate the spaciousness and sense of order and beauty of this dramatic courtyard while we could also look west and see the water.
By this time, we were hungry and followed the short path past the enticing playground full of school age children to the Banyan Café. This simple lunch spot offers made-to-order sandwiches, hamburgers, and salads to be eaten at outside tables. This was a good stop prior to our 1:00 unguided tour of the Ca’d’Zan.
On the way to the mansion, we detoured through the rose garden. In March, there were some roses, but I was informed that they had recently been pruned and were only now starting to bloom. It must be spectacular when many of the 1200 roses that form this wagon wheel design are in full color.
Walkway with Zodiac Leading to the Mansion
We continued up the palm-lined walk on the path of terra cotta mosaic inlaid with signs of the Zodiac, where we lined up for admission into the mansion. Ca d’Zan, obviously named for its owner, means House of John in the Venetian dialect. We had selected the quick self-guided tour because of our time constraints and because there was no additional fee. I so enjoyed the splendors of this structure that, on a future trip I would consider both the 40-minute guided tour of both the first and second floors for $10, and also the $20 Private Places Tour that includes the third floor game room and the Belvedere Tower. It is important to note that, for the unguided tour, 25 people are admitted every five minutes, so it makes sense to arrive shortly before one o’clock.
Each room in the Ca d’Zan included beautiful architectural details and possessions, from the gilded door in the solarium to the silver asparagus tongs in the pantry. I especially loved the windowpanes throughout the house, tinted lilac and blue; the green and clear crystal chandelier in the breakfast room; the ceiling in the dining room that looks like hand carved wood, but is really plaster and the Tap Room. I could happily imagine bellying up to this bar during Prohibition!
We exited the mansion onto an expansive terrace overlooking the bay. Everywhere on this visit, there was so much of interest to see and to absorb. Standing on the terrace, we could enjoy the beautifully patterned marble terrace floor, the house with its row of arched windows, tower, and patterned façade, the detailing on the balustrades and, of course, the view of Sarasota Bay.Fortunately, there were chairs so we could rest a while and savor all of this.
We were foot weary at this point and a bit on overload, but we hadn’t yet arrived at the two buildings of the Circus Museum. Fortunately, the Ringling has many golf carts to transport tourists, so we rode comfortably to the Original Circus Museum. We saw costumes, posters, beautifully carved and painted cage wagons for the animals, and even the cannon used for humans! The most interesting display, to us, was the luxurious railroad car that transported John and Mable to and from New York and on tour with the circus.
Main Room with Chandelier
A movie about the Ringling family and especially the lives of John and Mable provided interesting information and historical perspective. John and his four older brothers became interested in the circus as boys and he continued to run it long after his siblings had aged out and died. John became one of the richest men in America through his involvement with oil, ranching, railroads and real estate, including extensive holdings in the developing city of Sarasota. After John Ringling died in 1936, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Consolidated Circus was managed by his nephew until it was sold in 1967. The estate became the property of the State of Florida in 1946 and continues to be expanded and improved.
From their purchase of the property in 1911 until her death in 1929, Mabel was actively involved in improving the estate. Her initial projects were two gardens, the Rose Garden and a less formal Secret Garden. From 1924 until 1926, the Ringlings replaced their existing house with the Venetian Gothic style mansion that became their winter residence. Sadly, we also learned that Mable only lived for three years after the completion of Ca d’Zan. Mabel’s final project was the building of the Art Museum in 1927.
We continued on to the second building in the Circus Museum, The Tibbals Learning Center, where we encountered a most unique display and the absolute highlight of our time at The Ringling. The first floor houses a miniature model, scaled to ¾ inch, of a tented circus as it would have looked in its heyday when it had over 1300 personnel and 900 animals and traveled from town to town, setting up one morning, tearing down that evening, and repeating the entire process the next day. It is located in a 10,000 square foot gallery, with ceiling and skyline painted to represent Knoxville, Tennessee, including the train yard, trestle bridge, and passenger terminal.
You enter the display space by the railroad yard with its 55 railroad cars and continue around the perimeter viewing all the miniature tents and scenes that would have existed as part of the circus set-up. We walked past the cookhouse and the dining tent with its tiny place settings, including 145 sugar bowls and a multitude of diners, each assigned to his own designated seat at a table.
There were miniature tents for the horses that performed in the big top and the backyard where the performers, staff, and workers spent their time between performances, including the private tents with accommodations for the stars of the circus. The areas for the public, included built-to-scale people, animals, wagons, refreshment stands, and more. There was even the men’s rest room tent, including miniature figures and a sign reminding the men to face the wall!
Of course, the Big Top was the most spectacular sight with its three rings, four stages, and arial acts. Some of the models are of real performers, such as the Flying Walendas and Emmett Kelly, the clown. As many as 13,000 people would attend one performance, with straw bales providing additional seating for children at a sold-out circus.
As we were leaving the exhibit, we noticed tourists stop an older man and ask for his picture. He posed, a little sheepishly. Here was Howard Tibbals who, along with other skilled workers, continues to add to the circus. Tibbals built this one-sixteenth life-size scale replica over 50 years. Before it arrived at its permanent home in 2006, he had exhibited it at ten different locations.
Clearly, more than a full day could be spent simply marveling at the details of the Howard Bros Circus, but we returned to the Visitors Center and the gift store. I purchased two very interesting paperbacks that have been helpful as background for this article, The Circus in Miniature: The Howard Bros. Circus Model and Grounds and Gardens.
We made one final stop, near the front door of the visitors center, at the Asolo Theater, an 18th century Italian Theater that was moved to the property in 1950. The three tiers of this u-shaped auditorium sparkle with white wood trimmed in gold and brightly illuminated.
While we spent much of our time inside buildings at The Ringling, the grounds are magnificent and one could easily spend a day simply wandering outside or sitting at an easel painting. I especially enjoyed seeing so many mature Banyan trees. Among the other sub-tropical trees were cabbage palms, royal palms, pines, and multiple types of oak, some with Spanish moss. On another trip, I would like to walk along the Bolger Promenade studying the plantings while looking at the bay. It would be fun to see the flowers in the Secret Garden, to share the play space with a child, and to revisit so many of the venues we have just discovered. Perhaps that three-day pass is in my future!
Circus Museum photo courtesy of The Ringling. All other photos by Susan Kobayashi.