The 'other' Ringling brother's legacy



Though he played a major role in the family's circus business and Sarasota's 1920s real estate boom, Charles Ringling lived in the shadow of his more famous brother, John.

One of many posters for the circus, this depicts the Ringling brothers, from top, Alf, Al, John, Otto and Charles.

John Ringling is known today for being the public face of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, "the Greatest Show on Earth," and the namesake of world-renowned art museum and art school, to list but a few.

But lesser-known Charles Ringling left an equally impressive mark on Sarasota. Ringling Boulevard, for instance, is named for him, and not John, and he developed numerous buildings that remain a part of the city's tapestry to this day.

"Truly, the Ringling family members developed so much of what we enjoy today in Sarasota," said Ron McCarty, curator of the John Ringling mansion Cà d'Zan.

When the 1920s took development beyond Sarasota's earliest commercial core, for instance, few builders were more prominent or prolific than Charles Ringling.

Most notably, he was the developer of the Charles Ringling Building, located on the boulevard that is named after him.

Built in 1925 and 1926 and situated near the Sarasota County Courthouse, the building remains one of the more visible and enduring historic structures from before World War II downtown.

Designed by Milwaukee architect John S. Sheperd, construction was initially budgeted at $50,000, but the final price tag was $65,000 — a considerable sum at the time.

It is believed the price increased, in part, stemmed from a railroad embargo that reduced the availability of building materials, and a local union strike that raised construction workers' pay from 85 cents to $1 per hour.

The Sarasota County Administration Building on Ringling Boulevard in Sarasota. It was built as the S
The Sarasota County Administration Building on Ringling Boulevard in Sarasota. It was built as the Sarasota Terrace Hotel in 1925 by developer Charles Ringling, who came to Sarasota 100 years ago and played an important role in the city's development during the 1920s boom. Staff photo / Harold Bubil

When completed, the Mediterranean Revival-style building was described by the press as "having an Italian design with a Spanish influence."

The building, which today is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has been home to a series of grocery stores, restaurants and night clubs over the years.

Charles Ringling also donated the land for nearby civic structures, including the courthouse, the architecturally significant Terrace Building, and the the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad station that once stood nearby.

Four years earlier, Charles Ringling had purchased land from the Sarasota Golf Holding Co. — a company in which John Hamilton Gillespie, Sarasota's first mayor, was an executive — and platted a new subdivision.

The subdivision had the train station at its eastern end and a grand hotel, financed by the Adair Realty and Trust Co. of Atlanta, as its centerpiece.

Charles Ringling felt tourists would be able to step off the train and stay in his 10-story Sarasota Terrace Hotel — which opened on June 24, 1926 — and be in the heart of the city.

He planned to build 150 Spanish-style homes in the subdivision, so he formed the Sarasota Home Building Co.

Additionally, Charles Ringling owned 53 commercial lots downtown, and a 33,000-acre ranch next to the site of where Myakka River State Park stands today.

Centennial anniversary

This week, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his arrival in Sarasota, Charles Ringling and his famous family will again be in the spotlight.

On Tuesday, Charles Ringling will be the subject of a program at 7 p.m. at Crocker Church, 1260 12th St., Sarasota.

Titled "Charles Ringling: Brother in the Shadow," the program will offer a retrospective on the significant work the lesser-known brother did here, even while running the day-to-day operations of the family's famous circus.

During the program, McCarty and Deborah Walk, curator of the Circus Museum at the Ringling Museum of Art, will speak about Charles Ringling's influence on the economic and cultural development of Sarasota.

The program is free to members of the Historical Society of Sarasota County, and $10 for non-members.

"We will be focusing on Charles Ringling, of course," said McCarty. "But we also will be including lots of information about John and their sister, Ida Ringling North, to provide insight into their family holdings in Sarasota and their investments in Sarasota's future."

Charles Ringling was born on Dec. 2, 1863, in MacGregor, Iowa, and married the former Edith Conway in 1892. Together, they had two children, a son, Robert, and a daughter, Hester.

By 1907, after years of growth, the seven Ringling brothers bought out the Barnum and Bailey Circus and claimed the title "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Charles Ringling was in charge of production.

Civic leader

He first came to Sarasota in 1912, to visit his brother John, and became so fond of the area that he began splitting time here and his estate in Evanston, Ill.

Eventually, John focused on building along the coast and the waterfront, while Charles invested heavily downtown and greatly influenced the development of the city's business district.

As an outgrowth of his development work, he became president of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce in 1925, and founded the Ringling Bank and Trust Co., where he was president.

Charles Ringling died on Dec. 3, 1926, shortly after his office building and residence were completed. He was buried locally, in Manasota Park.

Last modified: December 10, 2012
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