A Dispatch from Sarasota, Florida

Text and Photography · Date 12/15/2016

I was dumbfounded by the spectacular opulence of my surroundings. This was Cà d’Zan, the first venue of my “Overtures to Bach” series at the Ringling International Arts Festival in Sarasota, Florida, and once John and Mable Ringling’s beloved winter palace; a gilded mansion standing on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, with stunning views of the western Keys. Later I would learn that Béla Bartók and Sergei Prokofiev had once frequented the colorful, luxuriously appointed music room. Enrico Caruso sang with an orchestra from a yacht moored just off the veranda. Lavish parties took place with the Kelloggs and the Ziegfelds, with movie stars and politicians, artists, writers, and business associates. Built in 1925 for $1.5 million—around $20 million today—Cà d’Zan is still the grandest house on the West Coast of Florida, 36,000 square feet over five stories.

The accumulation of wealth on this scale is hard to wrap one’s mind around. Beginning with their circus success, the five Ringling brothers built an entertainment empire that spanned the globe. John Ringling diversified more than his brothers and ultimately became the 13th richest man in America. Along with his primary mansion in New York City—where Rockefeller Center now stands—he controlled real estate holdings throughout the U.S., including Madison Square Garden, a 100-acre summer retreat in Alpine, New Jersey and another mansion on the bluff of the Hudson River overlooking Yonkers. John invested in 100,000 acres of oil in Oklahoma and developed an area in Montana where he could explore experimental ranching and agriculture; he was drawn to railroad infrastructure, and worked with architects like Dwight James Baum and his partner Owen Burns, Warren & Wetmore, and others to realize the vision behind much of the city of Sarasota. John had bought much of the surrounding land around Cà d’Zan, including the Keys, which no one would touch at the time. The thriving resort town of today, doubling in size each winter, is a far cry from the 740 residents John found in the Sarasota of 1911.

The day after my performance, I returned to Cà d’Zan to look around. I met with curator Ron McCarty, a mustachioed man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the building’s history and a deep respect and admiration for the couple whose imagination inspired it. Near the beginning of our private tour, I stood transfixed in front of a century-old photograph of a woman dressed in white Victorian filigree. McCarthy remarked, “This one’s incredible. She looks like a Russian princess.” From humble origins like her husband, Mable Ringling was born in the small town of Moons, Ohio, but both had a voracious curiosity for languages, art, and world cultures. Marrying late for the time, every year of their 25-year happy but childless marriage, they would travel throughout Europe. Mable was the force behind their extraordinary accumulation of baroque art, the collection surrounding me during the second of my “Overtures to Bach” performances in one of the grand galleries of the nearby Ringling Museum. And for the completion of my cycle I played in a fully reconstructed Italian opera house, the Historic Asolo Theater, shipped back from the Old World to the New, piece by meticulous piece. Mable’s love of art, gardening and music complemented John’s talents and interests. McCarthy explains, “She was the artistic one, and he was the business person who could implement whatever she wanted. Together, they both loved growing, as people.”

I couldn’t help peeking behind the closet doors on the second level of the Italianate music room. To my surprise they were filled with paper-maché, lead, and wood pipes. These were not plumbing or heating vessels, I was told, but arteries to what I would soon discover is the heart and soul of the house: an Aeolian organ. McCarthy beamed at my fascination with the concept. “It’s an organ for millionaires. The Fricks had them in New York. The Woolworth family had six different houses with one in each. So it was a real rare instrument that was appreciated at the time by the rich and famous,” he says. Along with the console on the ground level, and the blower chamber in the basement, the organ is comprised of an echo chamber and 2289 pipes going up through the second and third floors of the house, hidden behind rich baroque tapestries covering most of the walls. An automatic player mechanism is programmed to recreate over 600 performances. “It’s like a computer, so complex, ”McCarty says. Next door to Cà d’Zan, John’s brother Charles built his mansion with another Aeolian organ. Charles composed some music for the Ringling Bros. circus and, I was happy to learn, played the cello. Imagine the Gatsby-esque parties between the two mansions on the bay, with dueling organs blaring. It brings to mind a Golden Age of Venice in more ways than one.

Yet, McCarty laments, the organ has not been operational for years. When he began at the Museum in 1980, it was still partially working. McCarty describes the experience: “I’ve heard it and it’s the heart of the house. Absolutely incredible. The sound is outrageous, very orchestral. It makes you vibrate.” I had the good fortune to share the stage of Montreal’s Maison Symphonique recently with the virtuoso organist Paul Jacobs and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Jacobs’s delight in talking about the Aeolian company’s “musical machines,” these “marvels of engineering,” was palpable. These are not mere visual ornaments, they must be heard. The Aeolian’s meticulous voicing and warm tone create a voluptuous sonic tapestry, velvety and smooth. Unlike pianos, the organ world has held onto a broader scope of sound because of the sheer variety of builders that maintain an individuality of character.”

McCarty shared the dramatic statistic that of the 60 such organs commissioned in the state of Florida, only three have survived. One additional Aeolian organ from the Vanderbilt Estate has been moved to Naples. The Great Depression took its toll on many of the major estates. “In the early ‘40s, it was no longer popular for houses to be this huge and opulent. Houses started to become smaller, and what do you do with a major instrument like this? It takes up half your house.” Even more devastating, the organs were disassembled and used in the war effort. “So all those lead pipes were turned into weapons of war.”

John Ringling lost Mable, the love of his life, in 1929, the same year that the Great Depression began to take a toll on his vast fortune. In 1936, with bankruptcy on his doorstep, John passed away under ambiguous circumstances, bequeathing the entirety of his Sarasota estate to the state of Florida, on which now stands the magnificent Ringling Museum and the newly restored Cà d’Zan. Surely we cannot expect another real-estate magnate’s Florida manse, Mar-a-Lago, to enjoy a similar fate. Is it protest or riot to ask that the soul of a country be respected, restored?

The springboard for the rebirth of Cà d’Zan took place in 1995 with the filming of “Great Expectations,” starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Bancroft, and Robert De Niro. McCarthy remembers, “The house was in horrible condition. The state didn’t maintain it; they primarily put money towards the art museum—a billion dollar art collection. But as far as the historic house, it was more of a money pit.” In its dilapidation Cà d’Zan may have made a fitting home for Miss Havisham’s grim sense of contorted heartbreak, but ironically the film, and the stars behind it, were the key to Cà d’Zan’s restoration as a glorious testament to love. Now it only remains to bring the organ, the soul of this house, back to its former power and glow.

Back at the end of the depression, following a 10-year battle between the state and the surviving family, the Museum finally opened in 1946 with one of the most well-known organists of the time, E. Power Biggs, making his way down to perform on the organ at Cà d’Zan. He played Bach. As McCarthy said, “It would have been like last night with your cello concert. Well, it’s as close as we’re going to get until the organ is restored!” One day the broken heart of the Ca d’Zan will be made whole and once again we can be transported by its embracing splendor. ¶