Keeping one of Sarasota’s most beautiful landmarks in shape is no small task. Meet the man, who for the last 35 years, has worked to preserve a piece of history.
Ron McCarty walks along the ornate balustrade surrounding the Cà d’Zan’s bayfront terrace. His red hair and floral tie blow in the breeze as he crouches down to inspect the intricate Masonic designs.
To the layperson, these handcrafted balusters are just a small sampling of the mansion’s dizzying intricacies and sprawling beauty. To McCarty, it’s a scratch on the surface of an unceasing list of repairs.
“These will need to be redone soon,” he says, pointing to a few small fractures. “The humidity gets into all the little cracks and pulls them apart.”
As Keeper of the Cà d’Zan (at the top of the list of enviable job titles), McCarty has spent the last 35 years maintaining the structural — and historical — integrity of the 36,000-square-foot, five-story historic mansion and former winter residence of John and Mable Ringling.
“When I walk around the grounds,” he says, “I almost don’t see the beauty of the big picture. I see a never-ending list of what needs to be done. This is Sarasota’s most beautiful and elegant structure, but it’s located in the harshest environment, just feet from the bayfront. There’s always something.”
The Cà d’Zan — or House of John, in the Venetian dialect of the culture that inspired its architecture — was built in 1926 as the winter residence of circus icons John and Mable Ringling.
The mansion represented the couple’s vision for Sarasota as a burgeoning tourist destination. The project was Mable’s baby — she brought inspiration from her European travels to architect Dwight James Baum and builder Owen Burns and was heavily involved in the construction and furnishing.
After its completion, the $20.9 million estate (by today’s standards) was home to lavish Prohibition-era parties and concerts, entertaining celebrities and dignitaries alike.
When John Ringling died in 1936, he left the house to the state of Florida, but due to legal battles and a lack of funds, the estate sat neglected and closed for more than a decade. It reopened in 1946, but by the mid ’90s, the mansion had fallen into a state of extreme disrepair. The condition was so poor that director Mike Newell chose it to film scenes for his 1996 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” — specifically for its dilapidated appearance.
A SPECIAL PLACE
In 1980, McCarty was working in The Ringling’s curatorial department as collections manager, when he was asked if he would be interested in taking over the restorations of the mansion.
He didn’t hesitate. He’d gained valuable restoration experience in his previous job at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and as a painter and artist himself, he had an in-depth understanding of many of the materials. Not to mention, the building is also dear to his heart.
“This mansion is special to me,” he says. “The architecture is amazing; the vivid colors and glazed tiles are beautiful, and the setting is serene. It all fell into place — I was happy to help restore a piece of history.”
Starting in 1996, the mansion closed to undergo an extensive, three-phase restoration that included matching the interior paint, installing a new roof, restoring original furniture and replacing most of the marble, rails and balusters on the terrace, as well as the exterior terra cotta and glazed tiles. Six years and $15 million later, the mansion was restored to its former glory.
Now, 20 years later, McCarty says the historic landmark is due for additional upgrades. He’s inside now, on the second floor, surveying one of the bedrooms.
“There’s always something that needs to be done,” he says, running his hand over an almost unnoticeable bubble beginning to form in the paint of one wall. “This room is ready for a new roof. We’ve re-done this wall probably 20 times in the last 10 years.”
At times, the job is an overwhelming one. Maintaining the mansion’s delicate artistry in the face of the elements is an uphill battle — a constant fight against the forces of nature. With an annual budget ranging from $150,000 to $250,000, McCarty’s task is to prioritize the maintenance needs, search for grant opportunities and organize the logistics of any repairs. Structural needs come first, but even seemingly superficial damages can quickly become unmanageable.
Moisture seeps into every crack in the house, bubbling paint, eroding the grout around the terrace marble, splitting balusters, pulling apart window casements and destroying McCarty’s prized feature — the exterior terra cotta.
“It’s absolutely my favorite part about the house,” he says. “It almost has to be. It’s so beautiful, but it’s extremely delicate and requires constant care. If it wasn’t my favorite, I’d be banging my head against the floor.”
With three decades at the helm, McCarty knows the mansion as well as anyone. Touring the house, he effortlessly rattles off facts about its every detail — from the origins of the two-story pipe organ to where John stashed his booze in case of a raid. He’s become an authority on the mansion.
He’s not the only one drawn to its beauty; several movies have been filmed onsite, as well as multiple PBS specials.
“They even asked me to portray John Ringling in one of the specials,” he says with a laugh. “You can see me walking down from the balcony, mourning Mable. It was an honor. After spending so much time here, you almost start to feel like family.”
McCarty says the next budget will come through in July, and his next project will be to oversee the meticulous replacement of the windows in the solarium.
The balusters will also soon need repair and glazing, and he’s seeking grant money for a new roof. To him, the effort is well worth it.
“I love keeping it beautiful,” he says. “The story of John and Mable is so fascinating, and the Cà d’Zan, to me, represents the beauty of Sarasota and their impact on the community. It’s a symbol of elegance and a reflection of the family who built it. They loved this house — Mable especially — and restoring it to their vision is my way of paying tribute.”