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Ten Crazy Facts from Cà d'Zan, the Mansion the Circus Built

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Next to Hearst Castle or the Biltmore, Florida's Cà d'Zan enjoys little public attention, but it was born out of the same desire to create one of the country's most elaborate private homes. Built in the 1920s by John Ringling, of the Ringling Brothers Circus, and his wife, Mable, the Venetian-style mansion dominates 20 acres of Sarasota waterfront, accompanied by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Recently restored to its original glory, the Ringling mansion was once left a wreck with a leaky roof. The tale of its construction, degradation, and eventual rebirth is rife with fun facts. Find ten of the best, below.

1. In a nod to the modesty of the Ringling couple, their mansion (top) was inspired in large part by the Doge's Palace, the centuries-old seat of Venetian power that opened as a museum in 1923, when the Ringlings spent a year touring Italy. Of course, it was also influenced by Stanford White's now-demolished Madison Square Garden (above)—itself a take on the Doge's Palace—where John Ringling sat on the board of directors and Mable admired White's elaborate central tower.

2. When Mable returned from that fateful trip to Italy, she was carrying an "oilcloth briefcase," stuffed with inspirational sketches, notes, and photographs. The briefcase rarely left her sight, with its contents only briefly displayed at meetings with society architect Dwight James Baum.

3. The house, completed in 1926, cost a then-staggering $1.65M—more than $21M in today's dollars—to build, including a $50K electric organ and a $35K Napoleon III-style bedroom set (above). A very similar set of furniture that once belonged to King Farouk of Egypt is currently listed on 1stdibs for a whopping $985K.

4. The roof of the mansion is layered with antique Spanish barrel tiles, salvaged from Barcelona by John Ringling himself. With hundreds of Barcelona buildings then slated for demolition (to enlarge the streets), Ringling had thousands at his disposal and filled two entire cargo ships with his tile bounty, one of which landed at Miami and the other in Tampa. Far too numerous to be used up in the construction of Cà d'Zan, the tiles were sold to neighbors or simply piled, in the thousands, next to the Ringlings' driveway.

5. The product of all these rare materials and this extravagant work was Cà d'Zan, meaning "House of John" in Venetian dialect. Measuring 200 feet long, the sprawling estate (above) boasted broad patios, a waterfront dock, Venetian glass windows, and a six-story tower that Mrs. Ringling kept lit in the evenings and reportedly could be seen for miles around.

6. Ever the Italophile, Mable Ringling kept a gondola at the dock and would frequently have her servants propel her and her friends along the bayshore.

7. Despite his great outward success, poor investments coupled with the general downturn of the Depression, left Ringling near penniless at the time of his 1936 death. Some news reports had his bank accounts totaling a mere $311. In an effort to save his beloved home from creditors, Ringling willed the property and his substantial art collection, to the state of Florida, along with a previously established $1.2M trust for the home's preservation.

8. Even as the creditors circled Ringling's estate, the Ringling Museum of Art found enough cash on hand to secure the historic Asolo Theater, an 18th-century Italian theater that was dissembled in 1930 and shipped from the Veneto to Florida. Today the theater survives, albeit inside a new structure, on the grounds of Cà d'Zan.

9. By the late 1990s, the house and grounds were in a state of utter neglect and that $1.2M had grown to just $2M, hardly enough to pay for proper maintenance. In 1998, at the depths of its dilapidation, Cà d'Zan served as the backdrop for an adaptation of the Dickens classic Great Expectations, playing, of course, Paradiso Perduto (above) the crumbling home of Ms. Dinsmoor.

10. Its depressing appearance on the silver screen seems to have inspired some action on the part of Florida, which transferred the property to Florida State University and provided more than $40M toward new building, renovations, and an endowment for the property. In 2002, a six-year renovation commenced, eventually costing upwards of $15M, which restored extravagant details like the gilded interior doors, fixed the leaky roof, and refinished the original furnishings, of which 95% remain on site.

· Ca d'Zan: Ringling Residence (PDF) [Ringling Museum]
· Decorating for Billionaires: The Five Priciest 1stdibs Offerings [Curbed National]