Sarasota's Ca' d'Zan is filled with architectural beauty, and a great love story

Circus magnates John and Mable Ringling spared no expense building their dream home in Sarasota in 1926, and the Ca' d'Zan is nothing short of an architectural masterpiece. 

Ca' d'Zan means "House of John" in the Venetian dialect. It's an area of Italy they fell in love with during their worldwide travels.

But those who know better call it the "House of Mable." John turned every detail of its construction over to her -- a gift he gave freely. It has its venetian glass windows and the black-and-white marble floors.

The beautiful crystal chandelier that hangs above is from the original Waldorf Astoria in New York that was torn down to build the Empire State Building. The beautiful terracotta imported from Italy gives it a European feel. It's an expansive 36,000-square foot mansion with 56 bedrooms. 

"This was really Mable's love," said Barbara Ramsay, the museum's chief conservator.

Today, thousands of tourists pour through the mansion to learn the enchanted, if tragic, love story behind it. 

Something about Venice caught the Ringlings' eyes in the early 1900s. They loved it so much they made Sarasota Bay their Grand Canal. They say Mable would take friends out in gondolas in the afternoon, while John docked his 125-foot yacht named "Zolophus" -- a breed of sea lion.

At the turn of the 20th Century, there was nothing bigger than the circus coming to town. And no one did it better than the Ringling Brothers. They kept strange company in their life on the road and life was good for the circus empire they had built. Even for America's wealthiest couples, the Ca' d'Zan was over the top. When the Ringlings wanted to throw a party, boy did they. 

Inside the winter home, there is a massive Diebold vault where they kept champagne and liquor for the extravagant parties they threw during the Prohibition era. Who knows how many famous names pulled though the circular drive in front.

During the Ca' d'Zan's restoration, treasures were found locked in drawers and cabinets. Workers restored the Ringlings' bedrooms and closets -- all for guests to come inside and see. Sadly, Mable died just three years after its completion in 1929, and life was never the same for John. 

A few months later, the stock market crashed. The Great Depression took nearly everything. In his dying days, he was penniless. To save his beloved Ca' d'Zan, he turned it over to the state before his death in 1936. For too long it sat vacant -- too expensive to maintain.

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The Ca' d'Zan was in such disrepair, it was used in the 1998 adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" starring Ethan Hawke, Gwenyth Paltrow and Anne Bancroft. It was the backdrop for Miss Havisham's broken castle. Never had movie producers seen such an expansive creation is such shape -- vines growing over the windows and a dusty, crumbling interior. It was perfect.

And suddenly a small effort to restore the Ca' d'Zan became a big one. However, the project to return it to its former glory was daunting.

"The roof was leaking. Terracota was splitting into pieces and falling off," said Ramsay.

But she said she's proud of the work they've done -- especially the Belvedere Tower.

"It's my favorite spot for sure," she said. And she's right. The tower is worth the trip alone.  

People have said John Ringling would bring his business partners high up in his tower -- about 80 feet up -- to show them the city he built. The view is as far as the eye can see. It remains Sarasota's best lookout point. This was the biggest and most expensive renovation.

"It should last for a very long time," Ramsay said with a smile.

It's not just a glorious mansion. It's a perfect One Tank Trip. To enjoy the enchanted Ca' d'Zan the way you should, you have to know the story behind it.

If you're interested in visiting, it's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors must be able to climb the marble staircase and stand for the duration of the 45-minute tour. There are shorter tours that are more friendly if you need other accommodations. 

Tour prices range between $35 to $45. It's free for a lot of college kids. You can walk the beautiful grounds and linger for free.

For more information, head over to Ca' d'Zan website.