Born May 31, 1866, John Nicholas Ringling would be 150 years old this Memorial Day weekend. The youngest of seven brothers and a native of McGregor, Iowa, who would have thought this imposing and highly-decorated businessman would eventually choose Sarasota as a spot on the map to develop and promote, as well as make the winter headquarters for the circus, forging the city’s elite cultural spirit and sophisticated reputation. For without Ringling’s passion and influence, Sarasota may have remained a sleepy little fishing town with beautiful white quartz beaches for quite some time. Instead, thanks to Ringling’s ambitious pursuits, Sarasota was thriving in the Roaring Twenties, a Golden Age for this state in general. And it’s entirely possible we would have never earned the title as “Florida’s Cultural Capital” without his contributions in art, real estate, and overall economic expansion.
Ever the formidable showman, Ringling’s vision for greatness and excess was unmatched. Balanced devotedly by his beloved wife, who also shared John’s interests in the arts and aesthetics, this dynamic duo was a force to be reckoned with both on local and national levels. They hosted and courted the rich and famous at their 56-room mansion on Sarasota Bay, Ca D’Zan, an extravagant estate that spared no expense from the marble to the refrigeration to the furnishings to the booze during Prohibition.
John was a polymath, a renaissance man, and his public foray into art appreciation as a well-known circus magnate and man of the railroad surprised some. The more he studied art, the more he wanted to share his love, as well as the artifacts and works he and his wife had been accumulating in their lavish trips to Europe to seek and recruit talent for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. His dreams for the museum and its campus were to also heavily inspire and empower the younger set, exposing them to the beauty and historic significance of their creative existence.
While John may have died still heartbroken over Mable and almost penniless, he died proud, never once considering the divestiture of any of his collection to sustain himself or recover from his financial fall from grace. To preserve the integrity of the museum and estate that he and Mable created together, Sarasotans were truly blessed that he chose to leave it to the state so it’s legacy could endure evermore. It can never be contested that Ringling fashioned the engaging face and elegance of what Sarasota, Florida is today.