Mable Ringling set her bar high


Armilda Elizabeth Burton grew up on a farm, probably left home while still in her teens, never went to college, worked in a shoe factory, changed her first name and was perilously close to being an old maid when she finally married at the age of 30.

Now, 110 years after she became Mrs. John Ringling, and nearly 86 years after her death, Sarasotans will be arriving early to get a seat for a lecture on the life of this singular woman, better known as Mable Ringling.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Historical Society of Sarasota County presents “Mable Ringling Revealed” as part of its “Conversations at the Crocker” lecture series in the historic Crocker Church, 1260 12th St., Sarasota. The main speaker, Ringling circus museum curator Deborah Walk, will be assisted by Ron McCarty, keeper and curator of Cà d’Zan.

Admission is free for society members and students, and $10 for others.0

From humble beginnings, she became a standard-setter in Sarasota’s luxury real estate market, as well as a leader the social life of the community.

“She was a remarkable woman,” said Walk, whose multiple titles at The Ringling include Tibbals Curator of the Circus Museum and Curator of Historical Documents. “She came from limited means, but when given the opportunity, she blossomed.”

She helped establish Sarasota as a luxury destination through her supervision of the design and decoration of Cà d’Zan, often recognized as one of the nation’s most significant mansions. High-end real estate consumers are inspired by the “House of John’s” opulent architecture, ornate ceilings, gold fixtures and marble floors when designing their own homes.

“I know so many people that are on Lido Shores and up and down Bay Shore Drive who have used different elements of Cà d’Zan for inspiration,” McCarty said. “Roy Palmer designed his ceiling to look like the magnificent ceilings in Cà d’Zan. People have done floors to match. It is very much admired.”

And its “Venetian Gothic” architecture is echoed by the latter day’s Mediterranean revival.

Real estate broker Michael Saunders, who led the 1990s capital campaign to rehabilitate the deteriorating mansion, said Cà d’Zan was used by John Ringling as a tool to sell real estate.

“Part of the vision was that it would be used . . . to talk of a bayfront home of grandeur, to put people in that place,” Saunders said. “It allowed people to experience that terrace and the sweep of the bay” and behold Ringling’s holdings on southern Longboat Key.

“Bringing them to Cà d’Zan let them have the experience of what that felt like. Mable was the gracious hostess, and every detail had Mable’s imprint on it. She was the forbearer of things to come, and left a legacy of grace and elegance.”

Mable and Bertha

Historians generally agree that Mable Ringling, who died at 54 in 1929, is rivaled only by Bertha Palmer as the most important woman in Sarasota’s history, even though she lived here but three months a year after she bought, and then remodeled, a winter home with her “circus king” husband in 1912.

Palmer, the Chicago socialite who “discovered” fishing-village Sarasota in 1910, has “a wonderful history in Sarasota,” McCarty said. “She was such a woman of society and elegance. But she didn’t particularly have the goal of doing something for the community. She had a fabulous estate here that she created, and a business, where John and Mable were creating something for the people.

“They wanted to do things for the community. I so admire Mable because of what she wanted as a legacy to represent their lives,” McCarty continued. “Everyone loves the history of Bertha Palmer, and I am one of her biggest fans. But I so admire Mable because they took the next step of what you can give back to a community that has been so good to you.”

McCarty noted that even when the Ringlings, like many Floridians, lost a fortune when the real estate boom of the mid-1920s went bust, “they still took all of their means and put it towards building an art museum to give this community. How amazing. And they bought millions of dollars worth of artwork to fill it. Most people would just do the building. It’s unbelievable.”

So how did Mable Ringling, who grew up in a large family on a farm, become such a style maven? She is said to have given one interview, to a Seattle newspaper, and it gives a clue.

“She said, basically, she was educated in Europe,” said Walk. “For the 25 years that John and Mable criss-crossed Europe, at least once a year, they availed themselves of the grandeur of western culture.

“Also, we sometimes forget that with their railroad car, they criss-crossed this country. All the great places in America, they saw also. Great museums in Boston and New York, the wonderful houses of San Francisco. The beauty of this country, they were experiencing yearly. They saw this country in a very unique way.”

The Ringling Brothers circus made the travel, the mansion used only in the winter, and the art museum possible.

“The circus afforded that luxury,” Walk said. “It transformed them.

“John Ringling said, ‘There are no great cities without great art.’ That was a purposeful placing of this museum here. Not only was it the No. 1 tourist attraction, but also it had a cultural cachet that you didn’t find in other places.”

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: April 11, 2015
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