Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Ca' d'Zan 'Sunflower'

As lifetime residents of Sarasota, Florida my wife Liz and I seldom do sightseeing in our own hometown except when we have guests from out of town. And it reminds us of what a special town Sarasota is! One of the first places we take visitors is to the Ringling Museum of Art and we always take the tour of John and Mabel Ringling’s home, the Ca' d'Zan. It just so happens that my late father-in-law, artist John Hardy, gave my wife a special gift that has a connection to this beautiful, historic home. 

My wife and her dad were visiting Judy Axe, a Ringling College of Art and Design classmate of his from the late 1940's. She was a very well known Sarasota artist and during their reminiscing, the topic of the Ca' d'Zan came up and Judy shared a great story. 

When the Ca' d'Zan was being renovated in 2002, Judy got a phone call from a friend who was working on the renovation project and was told that one of the beautiful tinted glass windows had been broken during handling. Judy, amongst her many artistic talents, created glass mosaic pieces, so she rushed right over and collected the broken pieces. She showed Liz and John what she had created with the Ca' d'Zan's brownish pieces broken window glass – it was a beautiful sunflower and the brown pieces were the seeds! John knew that sunflowers were Liz’s favorite (she was even wearing a sunflower t-shirt that day!) and he bought it from Judy for Liz on the spot. It hangs on our lanai and shines in the sunset every day in memory of John and Judy.  

My memories of the Ca' d'Zan for me are mischievous ones. I grew up just a few blocks from there and I used to sneak in with my boyhood friends. We could always find a hole in the fence and loved romping around in those beautiful Banyan trees!

The Ca' d'Zan (Italian for ‘House of John’) has a wonderful history. John and Mabel Ringling finished the $1.5 million mansion just before Christmas in 1925. They moved in the following year and are considered among the first and most important developers in Sarasota history. Measuring 200 feet long, the sprawling estate boasted broad patios, a waterfront dock, Venetian glass windows, and a six-story tower that Mrs. Ringling kept lit in the evenings and reportedly could be seen for miles around. It was meant to look like the palaces and mansions the couple saw while traveling in Venice. The Ca'd'Zan has the oldest residential elevator in the state! Guests, including Will Rogers stayed in a bedroom on the fourth floor, and those beautiful, multi-colored glass windows on all four sides looked out over the bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Unfortunately, by the late 1990s, the house and grounds had descended into a state of neglect and in 1998, at the depths of its dilapidation, the Cà d'Zan served as the backdrop for an adaptation of the Dickens classic Great Expectations. Its depressing appearance in the movie inspired some action on the part of the state of Florida, which transferred the property to Florida State University and provided more than 40 million dollars toward new building, renovations, and an endowment for the property. In 2002, a six-year renovation commenced which restored extravagant details like the gilded interior doors, fixed the leaky roof, and refinished the original furnishings…and the beautiful Venetian glass windows. And Liz and I are lucky enough to get to enjoy the lovely, sparkling pieces of one of those windows every day!

Sources and Credits: Ringling.org, Curbed.com, Sarsasota History Alive