Hester was the first child of Edith and Charles Ringling. She was born in Baraboo, Wisconsin during 1893. This was eleven years after the first Ringling Brothers troupe was formed. Hester was raised in Baraboo as her parents and their extended family built the troupe into the smoothest running organization of its kind in the United States of America.
At first the brothers poured their profits back into developing the circus, assuring its safety and adding features that would attract greater audiences-while the family members were provided a comfortable existence. By the time Hester was ten years old her family was enjoying prosperity and her mother and father built a large frame home in Baraboo. Hester said that her parents never allowed their children "to get the idea that they were wealthy" and brought them up to share their values. An article written by Lowell Brandle quoted Hester about her father: "My father was a very sympathetic person. He cared about people-not just mawkish sentimentality-but cared about what they felt and thought. It was always said around the circus that anyone could go to ‘Mr. Charley' and he would listen and help if he could. People today sneer at that quality, call those persons ‘do-gooders'..." -another quote indicated that Hester would ask herself what her father would do in situations, and act accordingly.
Hester and her brother were allowed to spend a month with the circus in the summer while on vacation from their studies. They traveled in a private railroad car with their parents as the show moved along. Later she attended Northwestern University and studied voice in Germany, planning a career in grand opera. Both of her parents were talented musicians, passing on their love of music.
Initially, Hester followed a concert singing career. She married Louis Lancaster and had two sons. Louis was killed in the First World War a few years after they had been married. When her parents began to build their winter retreat in Sarasota, a home for Hester and her sons was built alongside. Later she married Charles E. Sanford. Hester gave concerts, taught voice lessons and drama to children, and was very active in the developing theaters of Sarasota. In 1932 she produced and directed her own play, Pearls and Sawdust, in Sarasota. A photograph of the cast shows a circus setting and the names range from Owen Burns, Albree Freeman, Edna Swain Halton, Betty Purdy, Clarence Stokes, to Isabel Thompson, Holloway Kennedy, and Hester among the actors.
President of the Players for over six years, Hester was known for her dramatic roles at the professional theater, the Palm Tree Playhouse, on Palm Avenue until 1961. She continued to work with children and, in her later years, trained young musicians. Hester also sat on the board of directors for the circus. Hester's two sons also followed theatrical careers. Charles became a singer and played the French horn in the Florida West Coast Symphony. Stuart, a producer-director at the Palm Tree, went on to a film career in Hollywood.
Hester's residence is classified as an eclectic Mediterranean Revival type-and is an example of Italian Renaissance Style-but one that is considerably different from the adjoining house in which her mother, Edith Ringling, resided following the death of her husband shortly after construction was completed. It has a stuccoed exterior and hipped red-clay tile roofs.
Although the entire design is asymmetrical, the main section of the house follows a u-shaped design around an open patio that overlooks Sarasota Bay-just as that of her parents' house. Another portion of the house, distinct from the main block of the house, extends beyond the southeast corner-providing service rooms.
The main block of the house is two stories, but the living room extends the entire height with a barrel vaulted ceiling that is pierced by arched openings to the hallway of the second story. The living room is flooded with light from the French windows to the patio as well as receiving indirect light from the eastern windows along the loggia and the upper floor. More light enters from high clerestory windows along the northern wall of the living room. The main block is flanked by two towers of three stories to the west, forming the u-shape around the patio.
The formal entrance is within the five-bay arcaded loggia along the eastern façade where a second set of towers is suggested by the stairwells. The fenestration in this building combines both arch-headed and square-headed windows. Note the use of wrought iron on both the exterior and interior of the house in distinctive lighting fixtures, balconies, railings, and window grilles. The floor tiles are terra-cotta. There are twenty-two rooms including a formal reception area, living room, dining room, and partial basement.
© 1996 by Kafi Benz, including the illustrations
Kafi Benz is the founder of Friends of "Seagate" Inc.
Post Office Box 2340, Sarasota, Florida 34230
Seagate is the nearby winter retreat of Gwendolyn and Powel Crosley
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