Ron McCarty has seen just about everything at Ca’ d’Zan, the 1925 Venetian Gothic winter mansion of John and Mable Ringling on Sarasota Bay, during his 35 years at The Ringling.
He has worked for 10 directors and was the museum’s point man with the contractor during the mansion’s restoration from 1995 to 2002. McCarty started his career at the Ringling Museum in 1980 managing collections, and has worked longer at The Ringling than anyone in history.
On April, 12 he presented a lecture at Sarasota’s historic Crocker Church on the secrets of “Mable’s House,” for the Historical Society of Sarasota County’s “Conversations at the Crocker” series. After the standing-room only crowd gave me a standing ovation, the Herald-Tribune’s Harold Bubil asked him a few questions:
Q: You said the mansion had been in decline for 20 years before the restoration began in 1995, with balusters falling away and wallpaper sagging from the walls. What was it like in the 1970s and ‘80s?
A: All you could do was have weddings there. It was very empty, not much furniture. No air-conditioning, so it was tough.
Q: Did the decline begin after John Ringling’s death in 1936?
A: For 10 years, it was in litigation. The state took it over in 1947. The Ringling boys, John Ringling North and Henry Ringling North, had access to it during that time. There was someone on the property named Rohan who was the manager of all the properties the Ringlings still owned. They had parties and lots of visitors in those 10 years. Any important person, they brought over to see John’s house.
By the time John passed away, it needed some restoration. In 10 years (he lived there), I am sure he had some restoration done in his lifetime. A house like this, it’s a living thing. There is so much that needs to kept all the time. The grout is the most important thing on the house. The roof, keeping it sealed — all of that would have definitely needed to be done continuously.
The museum didn’t have the funds to do that, and when I started in 1980, it was hideous down at the house. Almost embarrassing. They didn’t do anything. “If you want to rent it for a wedding, fine. We are not going to put money into it.”
Finally, we had a director who helped us put it into the program for the state to help us. Dr. David Ebbets. He is the one who started the restoration. It was the board that made the decision, but he was the director at the time. It needed major restoration.
Q: Was there any thought of demolishing the house?
A: It would never have been torn down; it is so well-built.
Q: Your fulltime job now is as keeper and curator of the house museum.
A: I am always on it. It is difficult, because we are on the water’s edge, to keep moisture out of areas. I might not see the grout that is on the fifth story. The major problem at the moment is the tower; that is the fifth story. It is so difficult to be in a boom and examine all of that continuously. When I am having grout done, I have them go up on the boom and go over everything they can.
Q: I recall the tour you gave me in 2012, when there was standing water on the solarium roof after a rain.
A: That will be part of the roof project that we do, hopefully in a year, where we repitch that to where it will be correct and not have any water damage.
Q: The $15 million restoration was even more difficult for you because of a car accident you had in 1999.
A: I recovered at home, but had major problem from it — dizziness, a torn eye, brain damage and it killed my thyroid. I was off six weeks. Then I came back and worked on coordinating everything, and it was very, very difficult.
Q: How did you get the job of keeper of the mansion?
A: Several people had been at Ca’ d’Zan who didn’t work out. They asked me if I would take over and make it happen. It was right at a crucial time.
Q: What are the key ingredients to managing the house, other than the love and passion you have for it?
A: It has been difficult having 10 different directors. Everyone has a different vision. I just plug along and do the best I can with what they give me.
I always have the legacy in the forefront — the story of the Ringlings is so important. Keeping the house as beautiful as possible is my main objective.
Q: It seems like the art of storytelling is being emphasized in today’s culture.
A: Stories of the rich and famous are extremely popular, like Downton Abbey. And that is what we have here. It is the American dream to come from nothing and work your way up to being such an important force in business that you can afford to build and own islands and develop.
John Ringling was the largest landowner in Sarasota County. He was a major force. There was Ringling, Oklahoma. Ringling, Montana. The Ringlings were the founding family of those towns and brought oil wells and railroads to them while living in New York.
They are a wonderful story and wonderful people, and they should be remembered in a much more in-depth way; it is glossed over so much. To me, my biggest accomplishment of my 35 years here is that when Ca’ d’Zan reopened in 2002, the story came to life about the family.
Before that, you didn’t hear much about the Ringlings at all. And I have worked and worked and worked to make their story told. This year I have done 50 talks in the community; last year 50, the year before that, too. I do legacy constantly, sometimes three in a week.