Ca’ d’Zan’s Ron McCarty: An Interview

Ron McCarty has been a member of the Curatorial Department at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art for the last 30 years. He is the Curator and Keeper of Ca’d’Zan, the 36,000 square-foot historic Venetian-Gothic mansion seated on Sarasota Bay. He worked on the $18 million dollar restoration of the Ringling Art Museum in the early 1990’s, before moving on to supervise and coordinate major aspects of the $16 million dollar restoration of Ca’d’Zan, working with construction companies, preservation architects, and skilled artists over the seven years to return the historic 56 room mansion to its original 1926 splendor. As curator, he is charged with all aspects of the historic mansion including the restoration and maintenance of the structure and the research, display, and care of all the Ca’d’Zan furniture and objects. Ron serves on the Advisory Board of the Department of Architecture and Interior Design at Florida State University, coordinating a summer program for the Department of Interior Design held at the Ca’d’Zan each year. Recent publications include contributions to Gothic Art in the Gilded Age and the introduction to The Work of Dwight James Baum, a monograph on the architect of Ca d’Zan published by Acanthus Press. Knowing these demands on his time and talent I was especially honored that he took time to provide a moving tour of the property for a friend and me and agreed to be featured in this series of house museum stewardship interviews

What brought John and Mable Ringling to Sarasota? 

John and Mable were visiting friends that were developing Sarasota. They came in 1909 and were offered property many times to get them interested in a winter home. Ralph Caples was with the New York Central Railway line and had been friendly with the Ringling’s back in New York City where John and Mable had their full time residence at 636 Fifth Avenue, now Rockefeller Center.  They fell in love with the nature and the undeveloped landscape. Only 840 people lived in Sarasota the year they moved to Sarasota in 1911. John’s other friend in Sarasota was Charles Thompson who had managed a circus so they related to many things. A few years later John became the largest landowner in Sarasota as he developed the Barrier Islands.

A striking feature of Ca’ d’Zan is the extensive murals throughout the interior - I especially enjoy the ballroom ceiling – how did these mural commissions come about?

Robert Webb Jr. was the principle artist of Ca’d'Zan and managed all the artists the Ringling’s brought over from Europe to do the detailed plaster decorations and marble work on the interior.  Webb painted the Pecky Cypress Court Ceiling, the Foyer ceiling, the Formal Dining Room Ceiling, the Solarium Ceiling along with the walls in Mable Ringling Bedroom and a cloud covered ceiling that Webb later removed after John Ringling passed away.  Willy Pogany is the artist that painted the Dancers of Nations Ceiling in the Ballroom.  It is one of the most fun filled explosions of color and movement in the house. Twenty-two vignettes were painting in Pogany’s New York City studio and installed in 1926 along with the shaped canvas of the third floor that depicts Carnival in Venice.  This room size canvas has an intimate portrait of the Ringlings with all of Mable’s pets. Willy Pogany was introduced to the Ringling’s by Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke, two dear friends that have stayed in Ca’d'Zan.  Willy Pogany worked for Hearst and even in Hollywood as the Art Director for films such as The Mummy. Mable really controlled all aspects of what was chosen for the house and acted as the general contractor.

The bedrooms suites are some of the most strikingly furnished and comfortably outfitted rooms in the house –what might this tell us about the Ringling’s intentions for Ca’ d’Zan?

The master chambers both have outstanding furnishings that command attention. Anton Kreiger made John Ringling suite in a flame mahogany with solid gilt-bronze mounts. An enormous centerpiece sits atop the cylinder front desk by Thomire and matches the decorative theme perfectly. A massive clock rests atop a large chest that depicts the Sleeping Cleopatra. In Mable Ringling’s private chambers, she picked a fantastic Francoise Linke suite with marquetry of a wonderful botanical theme as she has for most of the rooms throughout the mansion. The kingwood and satinwood ground is detailed in rosewood and tulipwood inlays ornamented with gilt-bronze mounts. Other bedrooms throughout the house feature Italian furniture from Venice and Tuscany.

I was startled by the unbridled hostility toward Ca d’Zan in the essay on the house in architectural historian James Maher’s book Twilight of Splendor – what do account for this negativity?

The publication “The Twilight of Splendor” was written at a time that no one had done any real research on the Ringling family or their collections. I was very upset reading such a negative chapter from an author that I respected. I am not sure why he would include a section on a house that he clearly dislikes. Why not focus on something positive. Everyone has a right to express themselves, but after all these years of caring and loving for this collection - it made me very sad.

The house’s spectacular setting on Sarasota Bay must result in some spectacular maintenance headaches? 

Ca’d'Zan is the first and most important Gilded Age mansion on the west coast of Florida. It was created by the Ringlings to show what was possible with an upper-scale estate for his Ringling Isles development. He was also developing a Ritz-Carlton, Mediterranean housing, public parks and golf courses. The maintenance on Ca’d'Zan is extensive, with a program in place for annual tuck-pointing and the painting of the steel window frames. The majority of the exterior is covered with thousands of terra cotta tiles attached to the stucco surface. It is a nightmare to do the pointing because of the five-story levels that require a 90’ boom to access. The museum is closed only for Thanksgivings Day, Christmas Day and New Years Day so I must work around all aspects of a functioning campus and not disturb the daily tours. The heavy storms of summer are another issue with the house having been built on the very edge of Sarasota Bay It is situated much like the Grand Canal in Venice. Plus, I have a total of 180 windows to keep dry and painted before rust forms. The 13,000 feet of exotic European marble used on the terrace of the west facade has yearly replacement as well. The complex has around 360,000 visitors per year plus all the weddings and events around the house and the Ringling Art Museum weekly. 

What were the challenges of converting a house museum to a movie set when Ca d’Zan was transformed into Miss Havisham’s house in the 1998 adaptation of Great Expectations?  

When 20th Century Fox came in 1995 to film Great Expectations, the mansion was in very poor condition. The terra cotta was broken in hundreds of locations around the exterior. The balustrade was completely destroyed in many areas on the back terrace. The swimming pool was filled in to make a flower bed. The interior’s silk wall coverings mounted in the ballroom had torn sections hanging. The wooden ceiling in the court was much stained from water damages. This was not the movie set; it was the way the museum looked at the time. The film crew painted the exterior with a very dirty colored paint to give a mildewed look. The furniture went to Orlando to an off-site storage - so the house was prepared for beginning the restoration after the filming was completed. Most of the stars were delightful. It was a fun film to feature Ca’d'Zan. I very much enjoyed working with the director and set designers. We have had many other television specials done at this location with the pilot to America’s Castles using Ca’d'Zan along with Biltmore and Marble House. Recently we were on Great Performances on PBS with Jackie Evancho and David Foster’s "Dream With Me”. She was the number one album in the world with this televised special, and has had six million people watch the program featuring all the historic buildings on the museum’s grounds. Jennifer Lopez just finished another film shot at Ca’d'Zan, with Jason Statham called “Parker”. The film is an action adventure about a jewelry heist that takes place in the court of Ca’d'Zan.  This was very difficult film to shot with the mansion restored back to it’s 1926 glory, and displayed with all the period items for tours. We did close for four days for the filming and I do hope it will show the real unique beauty of Ca’d'Zan for all those who may not ever travel to Florida. I will give one tip for those that find themselves in this situation working with film crews. Make sure that every detail is in writing, every detail, do not leave anything undiscussed, and make sure several people are involved to ask all the questions you can. Directors make lots of creative changes in mid-stream and it is very hard to stop if it is not in writing. I am not being negative, just you learn from situations. I must say I love working with film companies.

Thirty years is an impressive legacy as steward of this remarkable house – what has been the greatest benefit of this longevity?

I must say I have loved working at the Ringling all the years and knowing I have devoted every breath to this wonderful institution. I feel such a connection here. I know that part of that inspiration comes from falling in love with the story of the Ringlings. Their dream of expansion of Sarasota, and the creation of a world class resort, and the quality of the master paintings in the art museum they founded. I also have a real passion for Mable Ringling. She was designing this grand home with architect Dwight James Baum, creating a lasting legacy. Then she and John expanded their vision to the creation of a magnificent art museum. She worked with the architects while John Ringling was building his empire making millions. She was a gardener and helped beautify the community through her Garden Clubs. She loved nature and I very much relate to that and have been a botanical painter myself for forty years. She is a lovely woman and I hope to tell her story with every opportunity I get.

What is your next dream project for Ca d’Zan?

My goal now is focused always on keeping the structure as perfect as possible. The Aeolian Duo-Art Organ is a fantastic instrument that needs a full restoration. It was commissioned in 1925 at a cost of $25,000.00 The 2,289 pipes are waiting in storage for the day that we can have it back in working-order for live concerts in the Court. I think it can be a wonderful opportunity for the Florida State University to have the school of Music offer recitals. I am planning to have a device that will allow tour guides a way to push a button and play the organ for each tour for one minute. I also want to restore the marble swimming pool into a reflecting pool. All big dreams and I hope I can see them accomplished during my years at the Ringling.