Alfred Clas, a prominent Wisconsin architect, designed this house as the winter retreat for Edith and Charles Ringling. It was begun in 1924 and completed in 1926 at a cost of $800,000. Unfortunately, Charles died shortly after completion of the construction, but Edith resided in the house for many decades.
The house was built by Eisenberg, of Wisconsin, who brought his own work crew—they camped out on the land during the construction of the two houses being built at the same time on this site. The secondary house was built by the Ringlings as a residence for their daughter, Hester.
Architecturally classified as an eclectic Mediterranean Revival type, this house is an example of the Italian Renaissance Style that fashionable architects began drawing in the 1880s. Detailing of the house also shows the influence of the Beaux Arts Style which was popular at the time.
The building is veneered entirely with pink Etowah marble from Georgia. The house and the central porte-cochere have a balustrade along the top that is a typical feature of the Italian Renaissance Style. Fenestration is the term applied to the openings in a building—and here one finds a combination of both arch-headed and square-headed windows.
The overall design was of a two story u-shape surrounding an open patio overlooking the bay on the west. From the house, the patio was reached through an arcaded loggia using French windows from the living room and the dining room. The second floor has an enclosed hallway connecting the bedroom wings that is placed above the loggia, and built to resemble it from the outside. This central patio was altered by the university to create an enclosed room within a portion of the patio. Prior to the alteration, the two structures would have created the impression of a two-tiered loggia.
The grand entrance to the house is through a wrought iron screened cage contained within the porte-cochere. The first room encountered is a gracious living room measuring fifty-eight by thirty feet, dominated by three features—the ornately beamed ceiling, a central marble fireplace, and the curved marble staircase ascending to the second floor. French windows flanking the fireplace led to the loggia and thereby, the patio and the dining room, the charming billiard room, and a hallway to the offices and service rooms.
The enclosure of the patio has diminished a sense of natural light and air indoors, as well as, blocking the enjoyment of the nighttime sky that would have been enjoyed by guests circulating through a home designed for the entertainment of large numbers of people, but it is the only major feature of the house that has been altered.
The billiard room still features the Italian murals and a marble fountain that made the room so charming. The dining room is constructed with the same arched wall and ceiling motif, barrel vaulting, found in the loggia and the billiard room.
From the opposite end of the living room, one must descend a short marble staircase to enter the acoustically designed music room to the south. This grand room was designed for a very talented couple who loved to participate in, and hold musical performances. The music room is thirty by sixty feet and contains the console for the Aeolian-Skinner organ built into the walls of the house at a cost of $40,000. The paneling is walnut and the floors are teak. The chamfered wooden beam ceiling is decorated with stenciling.
The house has twenty rooms containing an office, other living rooms, bedrooms, a kitchen with service rooms and quarters for servants, and a basement. The estate was self-sufficient, providing food and services as needed.
A covered walk—an arcaded hyphen—with a central octagonal belvedere (a place from which to enjoy the lovely view) leads to Hester’s residence. Both the hyphen and the belvedere are accented with the marble of the main residence, but they are constructed of the stucco material of the secondary residence. Blending the materials from the two building styles creates a harmonious transition between the two different Italian styles. The belvedere echoes the structure from which it projects, the tower of the main residence which contains an alcove that serves as a foyer to the music room on the ground floor.
© 1996 by Kafi Benz, including the illustrations
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