A Sarasota mansion seldom seen


Unless you are a socialite, a New College student or employee, or a caterer, you may be unaware of one of the most impressive old houses in Florida.

It’s the former hocharles1me of circus co-owner and real estate developer Charles Ringling and his wife, Edith. Built in 1925 and clad in pink Georgian marble, the 18,964-square-foot structure has been owned by New College since 1962 and serves as College Hall, housing the admissions office, classrooms and the offices of several professors.


“Charles and Edith’s home is so classical and stately,” said Ringling history expert Ron McCarty. “Many examples in the same taste and style are in cities all over America. But it’s so very unique in its architectural details and opulence.”

Its grand spaces and expansive lawn overlooking the broadest width of Sarasota Bay also are the scene of some of Sarasota’s most impressive social events and fund-raisers. And not just once in a while.

Weddings and other parties can be held there, too. Revenue from rentals helps pay for upkeep costs, which are substantial.

A week ago, McCarty conducted a tour of the Charles Ringling Mansion, and a peek at the Hester Ringling Sanford House immediately to its south, for members of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. As is always the case, McCarty, keeper and curator of Cá d’Zan, the John and Mable Ringling Mansion, did his homework and enlightened the tour-goers with Ringling facts and trivia.

Over his 30 years with the Ringling organization, McCarty has spent countless hours in College Hall, even using it as a lunch venue and taking an exercise class in the Music Room some years ago.

Charles Ringling, on the other hand, spent only a few months there after the house was completed in March 1926 at a cost of $880,000, with another $300,000 spent on furnishings and decor. He died at 62 of a cerebral hemorrhage in December of that year.

Edith Ringling, a beloved figure in the community, especially after she reimbursed depositors in full from her own funds after Charles’ bank failed during the Great Depression, lived in the house until her death in 1953.

“I admire Edith for what she has given to the community, and having been such a great life partner with Charles,” said McCarty. “She has many qualities and should be showcased. She loved the community and her children were involved here. It was very much their home, not a seasonal residence. They loved Sarasota.

“I love the Charles and Edith history in Sarasota as much as the John and Mable,” said McCarty. “They were very different people and gave so much to what we now know as the elegant and artistic Sarasota of today.”

Edith’s children could not afford to maintain the mansion. Jerry Collins, the owner of the Sarasota Kennel Club, bought the 30-acre property in 1958 by paying off the county property tax liens, said McCarty, and then sold it to Fred Wynans of Stocksdale, Pa., who spent $100,000 on repairs and restoration.

New College, founded in 1960, bought the Charles Ringling Estate two years later for $4 million.

“Crucial to New College’s early start-up efforts was the purchase in 1962 of the Charles Ringling estate on Sarasota Bay as the site of the college’s main campus,” wrote then-New College President Gordon Michalson in 2004.

McCarty said New College has done an admirable job of maintaining the mansion and adapting it for collegiate use. In 1965, the school did something that may have both minimized maintenance expenses and extended the life of the building: It enclosed the loggia on the west side of the building, protecting marble arches, French doors and an intricately painted ceiling from wind, rain and salt air.

“New College respects the space very much,” said McCarty during a private tour for the Herald-Tribune. “They understand its history and beauty. They could have changed so much more, so I think they have been very sensitive. Without something like this preserved, you lose so much of your heritage. I think they (Charles and John) would be very pleased.”

Historic district

The Charles and Edith Ringling Mansion is part of a National Register historic district that includes the John and Mable Ringling of Art, Cá d’Zan, the Hester Ringling Sanford residence, the Ralph Caples Estate the original Asolo theater and about 100 acres of bayfront.

Cá d’Zan is the better known and more opulent of the mansions. It has been published in many books about Florida’s, and the nation’s, most outstanding homes, and is an icon for Sarasota. “The Charles,” on the other hand, is largely ignored by the press.

“The Charles and Edith mansion is elegant and stately, while John and Mable’s is much more like a Hollywood fantasy, having castle-like features,” said McCarty. “Both are clearly the most important private residences of the 1920s Florida Boom on the west coast of Florida.”

The main difference today is that Cá d’Zan is a museum, while College Hall is a working building. But as it is public property, visitors are free to walk the grounds or see the inside of the building during business hours. Admission to Cá d’Zan, on the other hand, is $25. The proximity of the two mansions is a testament to the closeness of the brothers.

“John and Charles were very visionary in everything they did for the community,” McCarty said. “Charles developed a lot of the downtown business district, and John was doing the resort type of real estate, as well as investments down by Myakka State Park. John bought 67,000 acres and sold half of it to his brother.

“They were very close, no matter what you read. They were very much a loving family and enjoyed being together and working together. Later on, stories would arise that maybe Edith wasn’t close to John. But that is not important at all. The two brothers were very close, or else Charles would not have invested with John.”

John Ringling died in December 1936, one day short of 10 years after Charles’s death, at age 70.

“They are such a great aspect to this community,” said McCarty.

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: January 11, 2014
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