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Mable Burton Ringling

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ron McCarty
Credit: Ringling Museum of Art and Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Mable Burton Ringling photo

Mable Burton Ringling was a resident of Sarasota County from 1911 until her death in 1929. She and her famous husband, John Ringling, purchased twenty acres on Shell Beach Subdivision establishing a winter residence, with her primary residence on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

They purchased the land from Ralph Caples who had acquired the land a few months prior to the Ringling’s acquisition from Charles N. Thompson who had designed the Shell Beach Subdivision. The property had a twelve-room wood frame house called “Palms Elysian” in which Mable Ringling had re-configured enlarging rooms and installing indoor plumbing.

Her next project was to create a formal rose garden in a classic Italianate wagon-wheel design having a central cast-stone gazebo with wrought iron dome and fifty-four cast columns that once supported trellises, with European sculptures placed throughout. This is now one of the oldest public rose gardens in the south and an outstanding example of early twentieth-century gardens in America.

She became more involved in community projects after their purchase of the Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club in 1916. This property was located across from Cedar Key now known as Golden Gate Point, which the Ringling’s also purchased the same year. Later, after the Ringling’s started developing Cedar Key, she redesigned the exterior and interior of the Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club and renaming it the Sunset Apartments. She enclosed all the veranda’s expanding the interior rooms and making a luxury penthouse apartment.

The Ringling’s began an elaborate real estate venture buying property east of town with Charles Ringling as a partner, purchasing 66,000 acres. In 1922 John and Mable purchased Bird Key with the existing Worcester Mansion and gardens. Then hundreds of acres of property was acquired with the assistance of Owen Burns developing St. Armands Key, Lido Key, and almost two-thousand acres on Longboat Key. A charter was developed with John Ringling as President and Treasurer, Mable Ringling as Vice-President, and Owen Burns as Vice-President and Secretary calling it John Ringling Estates, Inc. which included electric power and water services, hotels, golf courses, and steamboats. It embraced all the essentials for a well-formed resort.

Mable was in charge of decorating all John Ringling offices, where she had elaborate wall treatments, installing master paintings from their collection and beautiful window treatments. It was praised in the newspapers as a museum installation with masterpieces and important furniture from famous estates.

She commissioned John H. Phillips, a New York City architect known for his work on the exterior of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to design a cottage on their property for their yacht captain and his family. Phillips would also be commissioned for the design of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Her social commitment was becoming more obvious with Mable being elected the first president of the Sarasota Garden Club’s Founders Circle in 1927 where she offered great support to beautify the city of Sarasota’s green spaces on Main Street and other locations.

Documents show that the original charter for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1927 listed Mable Ringling as one of the three directors along with John Ringling and Julius Bohler. They had planned that the museum would be a lasting memorial to their lives and accomplishments and be dedicated to the people of Florida. No other patron in the State of Florida has given a more substantial and important gift to the people of Florida.

When John and Mable discussed building a new home in Sarasota, John made a gift of their future home to Mable, allowing her to build an impressive structure on Sarasota Bay demonstrating what opulence was possible in this growing community. The Ringling’s commissioned Dwight James Baum, an award winning New York architect to design Mable’s dream house. Baum ultimately created the fifty-six room, thirty-six thousand square foot five-story mansion in a Venetian-Gothic style. The structure was completely supervised by Mable Ringling who worked directly with Baum and his on-site architect Earl Purdy. The building was completed in October, 1925 with Owen Burns as the builder. Mable Ringling worked with artists and specialists developing the interior finishes and marble installation opening the mansion at an open-house, December, 1926. She handed out gifts and candy to all the children and hosted lunches for the Boy Scouts that handled all the traffic and parking situations. Mable Ringling was known for her kindness and love of children and animals. Mable helped host many public events that involved thousands of children and their families to see the exquisite beaches on Lido Beach and play games and athletic contests. 

After Ca’d’Zan was completed, Mable was able to participate more in social activities. She was named to a Chamber of Commerce panel in November, 1927. John and Mable hosted a number of celebrities at Ca’d’Zan, such as Ottocar Battik, Ballet Master of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She had numerous musical celebrations at Ca’d’Zan for her Garden Club membership or the Woman’s Club membership. She was named director of the Sarasota Woman’s Club in 1928. The Ringling’s even staged public radio programs from Ca’d’Zan, featuring musical performances o the Aeolian Organ that is installed in the central court of the mansion. This was to share classical music with the small community and expose them to fine performances of artists they would bring from New York and Tampa.

Beginning in 1934, the Founder’s Circle of the Sarasota Garden Club, then the only Garden Club unit in the city, raised funds to honor Mable Ringling for her contribution to Sarasota by installing a fountain and reflection pool in Luke Wood Park, near downtown Sarasota. Thomas Reed Martin was commissioned to design and beautify the park where the fountain would be installed. John Ringling donated sculptures for the location and many community groups came together to make this memorial possible and will once again honor our beloved Mable Burton Ringling. The fountain opened on Arbor Day, 1936, and became an area for many local families to enjoy nature in our community alongside downtown Sarasota. It is rare to have someone so generous, kind, and dedicated to a community’s enrichment. For she and her husband have established a memorial in Sarasota of a world-class art collection to be given to the people of Florida and above all, Sarasota.

Mable Ringling has been honored in countless publications for her exceptional taste and artistic leadership for the mansion. In 2000, a partnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Save America’s Treasures was established dedicated to the celebration and preservation of our nation’s irreplaceable historic and cultural legacy and Ca’d’Zan was named as one of its historic treasures. To learn more about the Ringling Museum of Art and Ca’d’Zan, please visit their Web site, at www.ringling.org.