Designed by noted New York City architect Dwight James Baum, Ca’ d’Zan, John and Mable Ringling’s spectacular 36,000-square-foot winter residence, stands as a testament to the American Dream in the Roaring Twenties. Tours of the mansion, which hosted grand concerts and glamorous ballroom soirees during its heyday, offer a glimpse into the rarified lifestyle of a couple dedicated to living with, appreciating, and advancing the arts and design. Completed in 1926, Ca’ d’Zan features many of Mable Ringling’s favorite details and designs from famous Venetian palazzi of the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries that she visited, with flora and fauna chosen as the decorative theme.
Since Ca’ d’Zan opened its doors to the public in 1946, it has become a favorite site for visitors to Florida and residents alike. It is recognized as an architectural treasure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. As a result of its age and popularity, the wear and tear on this five-story, 56-room mansion is tremendous. Ongoing regular maintenance, repainting, refinishing, and repairing are critical as part of the important stewardship and custodianship of Ca’ d’Zan. But in order for this palatial and significant work of Venetian Gothic-style architecture to be properly preserved, periodic larger conservation and restoration efforts are required. The most recent of these projects took place from 1996 to 2002.
One major component of this magnificent historic home that is now displaying signs of severe deterioration is the exterior terra cotta ornamentation, perhaps Ca’ d’Zan’s most distinctive feature. “What makes Ca’ d’Zan so incredibly beautiful and special are the striking terra cotta tiles and charming decorative design,” said Ron McCarty, Keeper of Ca’ d’Zan. “The workmanship and materials are flawless. However, the early 20th-century mounting of the terra cotta, while state-of-the-art at the time, has not aged well since the building was constructed 90 years ago.”
The glazed terra cotta was fabricated in the 1920s by O. W. Ketcham Terra Cotta Works, a firm near Philadelphia whose work on the project was actively overseen by Mable Ringling. Accounts describe her climbing into kilns, choosing every color, and approving the designs of the terra cotta in order to replicate the visual splendor that she experienced in Venice. The current conservation and restoration project addresses the needs of the terra cotta decoration, in particular the iron elements that support the terra cotta covering every surface of this justly celebrated and studied building. Salt-laden air and rainwater seep in and corrode the iron, leading to internal stresses that cause fracturing of the terra cotta. In order to prevent further damage and loss, new stainless steel supports will be installed.
“The careful preservation of this wonderful historic structure is a huge responsibility. In any kind of conservation or restoration program, we want to retain as much of the fabric of the original as possible, replacing elements only when absolutely necessary.”Barbra Ramsay
On March 31st, The Ringling is hosting the fifth annual Wine Walk—the primary fundraising event for the Ca’ d’Zan Preservation Fund. Guests participate in a self-guided wine tasting along the drive to the mansion, complete with food pairings and live entertainment. Each tasting station will be theatrically decorated in the spirit of this year’s theme, red and white. Construction of Ca’ d’Zan was completed in 1926, but fell into disrepair after John Ringling’s death. In 1996, the mansion underwent a 6-year, $15 million restoration. However, much work remains to be done to not only completely restore the palatial home to its former grandeur but also to maintain the property and ensure major renovations are not needed in the future.