Ringling gets 'shades'

See photos at bottom of this article

By Anna Scott . Herald Tribune
Published Thursday, June 12, 2008

SARASOTA — Soaring as high as 32 feet, the windows cast blocks of colorful light on the marble floor. They were Mable Ringling's favorite hues: amethyst, ruby, gold, green and blue.

When the wife of this city's famous circus tycoon designed the signature glass 82 years ago, it was nothing but a delight to her famous and wealthy guests who visited from up north.

Today, the windows are a lens into Ron McCarty's worst nightmare.

McCarty cares for the thousands of priceless collectibles packed inside the Ca' d'Zan mansion overlooking Sarasota Bay. Prolonged exposure to the high level of ultraviolet rays has begun to fade the furniture inside.

A deep red velvet couch and matching historic armchairs are now a rosy pink.

Among the many more items in danger: one-of-a-kind tapestries from the 1650s, a Parisian carpet from the 1870s recently discovered in the mansion's attic, and furniture from the estate of Jacob Astor, an inventor who died on the Titanic and member of one of the county's wealthiest families.

Ron McCarty, keeper of the house, said that in addition to protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays, the coating will safeguard against strong storm winds. It will be the first time that the mansion's multi-colored windows have been protected from hurricanes.

This week, after years of attempts to block the light without blocking the view for the more than 300,000 tourists who visit annually, workers are about to complete a $20,000 project coating the windows in a protective, transparent film.

The coating is expected to reflect the rays and also strengthen the glass against a tropical storm.

"It's something we've needed since we opened the house in the 1950s," McCarty said. "This is the most important historic home on the west coast of Florida and it would have been damaged if we hadn't done something."

Light-proofing the mansion has been no small task. The windows are divided by lead panes into hundreds of pieces as small as two inches.

"We had to trace the windows with butcher paper, like a stencil, and then cut out pieces of film to match," said Angelo Ragone, sales manager for Hurricanes Plus, a Sarasota company that sells hurricane protection supplies.

Half of the 160 windows in the house will be completed this week and the other half will be done next year. The invisible film technology is less than two years old and was created by the company 3M. It is also being used by homeowners to reduce energy costs because it keeps rooms cooler.

The film will not provide much protection from a hurricane. If a major storm were headed for the mansion, staff plan to move the contents of the house to a secret location.

John and Mable Ringling finished the $1.5 million mansion just before Christmas in 1925. "Ca' d'Zan" means "house of John" in Italian. They moved in the following year and are considered among the first and most important developers in Sarasota history.

It was meant to look like the palaces and mansions the couple saw while traveling in Venice. Likewise, the home sits directly on the bay, like the homes on Venice's canals.

The Ringling mansion embodied the hilt of opulence at the time. Ca'd'Zan boasts the oldest residential elevator in the state.

Guests, including Will Rogers and New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, stayed in a bedroom on the fourth floor, where windows on all four sides look out to the ocean.

Rob Seaman, left, and Heather Bass of Hurricanes Plus work to attach a layer of plastic coating on each pane
of stained glass at the 82-year-old Ringling waterfront mansion, the Ca d'Zan Wednesday, June 11, 2008.

A benefit of the coating is that it will prevent the curtains on the windows and interior furniture from fading.

Rob Seaman, left, and Heather Bass of Hurricanes Plus work on the windows.
The work is scheduled to be completed Thursday, June 12, 2008.

A portrait of John and Mable Ringling surrounded by their various pets is seen on the ceiling of the game room.

Heather Bass traces the outline of a Ca d'Zan window pane which she will use to cut a piece of
protective coating for the glass.

Heather Bass and Rob Seaman work on scaffolding to reach some of the windows that are 32-feet high.

The ornate marble terrace overlooking the Sarasota Bay is seen through the multi-colored glass panes of the Ca d'Zan.

All photos by  Jason McKibben. Staff Herald Tribune.