Villa Am Meer, Chapter 6

The Greatest Show on Earth

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Benedict family over the past week. I’ve wondered what memories the family shared together at Elena Duke Benedict’s funeral, and whether the topic of Villa Am Meer came up in any of their conversations. I imagine maybe it did, though in reading Ms. Benedict’s obituary, it seems her little seaside cottage on Longboat Key was just a small fragment of a much larger and more extraordinary life.

I’m really hoping to hear more from the Benedict family members soon. If they’re willing, my great hope is that I’ll be able to share some of their stories about life at Villa Am Meer, as well as some vintage family photos. But, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, there’s one little tidbit I learned a while back that sent me on another of my day-long research benders. I’d heard that Hermann and Hertha Kohl (the German couple who founded Norda, Inc. and took in Elena Duke Benedict as their legal ward) were contemporaries of the Ringling Brothers. I also learned through family lore that Villa Am Meer was designed by the same architect who’d designed the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.

*Sidebar*

Of course, anyone who knows Sarasota knows the Ringling connection. That’s because for 33 years, Sarasota was the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The Ringling Brothers

The Ringling Brothers

The Ringling Brothers Circus began in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It was founded by five (of seven) of the Ringling Brothers, Albert (1852-1916), August (1854-1907), Otto (1858-1911), Alfred T. (1862-1919), Charles (1863-1926), John (1866-1936), and Henry (1869-1918).

In 1907, the Ringling Brothers Circus acquired the Barnum & Bailey Circus, yet the two operated as separate entities until they merged in 1919 and became the “Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.” That same year, the Ringlings moved their winter headquarters from Baraboo, Wisconsin to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1927, the Ringlings decided to move their winter quarters from Connecticut to Sarasota, Florida. Here’s some info I gleaned from SarasotaCircusHistory.com:

On March 23, 1927, prior to the circus’ opening in Madison Square Garden, John Ringling announced that Sarasota would become the new home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Greatest Show on Earth would move its winter quarters to 200 acres on the east side of town.

Winter quarters provided an annual respite for circus performers while giving management and the creative staff an opportunity to create and produce a new show for the following year.

John Ringling realized that the public had a great interest in a “behind-the-scenes” look at circus life, so he opened winter quarters on Christmas Day, 1927, and charged $.25 for adults and $.10 for children.

Ringling’s winter quarters boosted tourism for Sarasota, and reaped a great deal of publicity for the state of Florida. By 1940, the winter quarters in Sarasota drew 100,000 visitors in one season, making it one of Florida’s earliest and most heavily visited tourist attractions.

Brothers Charles and John Ringling decided to make Sarasota their permanent homes. Each built beautiful bayfront mansions in the 1920s.

Charles Ringling mansion

Charles Ringling mansion. Brother John Ringling's mansion is just to the south (top of photo).

Charles was the production man for the Ringling Brothers Circus… the real brains behind the business.

The estate was built in 1925-26 as the winter retreat for the Charles Ringling family in what was known as the Shell Beach subdivision, platted in 1896. The compound was designed to be completely self-sufficient, including staff quarters, farming and livestock. In addition to the main mansion, Charles built another gracious bayfront home for his daughter, Hester Ringling Sanford, and her children, now known as Cook Hall. The two bayfront homes are connected by a covered walkway that creates a transition between the two architectural styles. Within months of the completion of the construction, Charles died, but Edith Ringling and their daughter continued to reside on the estate for many decades. The structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. [citation]

Charles Ringling was very influential on the design and architecture of downtown Sarasota. In fact, Ringling Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares, is named after him.

View a video about Charles Ringling’s architectural contributions on Sarasota History Alive.

John Ringling's residence

John Ringling's residence, Cà d'Zan

Older brother, John Ringling, was the showman. During the years 1924-1925, he and his wife, Mable, also built a beautiful mansion on Sarasota Bay, just south of his brother Charles’ residence. They named it Cà d’Zan, which means “House of John.” It is 200-foot long, encompassing approximately 36,000 square feet with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms.

John Ringling was also an avid art collector, and in 1927, began work on a museum to house his extensive art collection.

In 1925, Ringling engaged architect John H. Phillips to design the museum. Construction began in 1927, but was slowed almost immediately by the collapse of Florida’s land boom and later, Wall Street’s stock market crash. Financial misfortune and Mable’s death in 1929 might have ended the dream, but John Ringling instead gained a new resolve to complete the museum, borrowing money as needed, knowing that it would perpetuate the memory of his beloved Mable. [citation]

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

John Ringling bequeathed his art collection, mansion and estate to the people of the State of Florida at the time of his death in 1936. In 2002, governance was transferred to Florida State University (FSU), establishing the Ringling estate as one of the largest museum/university complexes in the nation.

*End sidebar*

Phew. Long sidebar. Now, back to the tidbit about the architect of the museum… John H. Phillips. If family lore holds true, he is the same architect who designed Villa Am Meer. Why is this significant? Because John H. Phillips was a rock star among the architects of his day.

Here’s a wonderful interview I found on John H. Phillips, dated August 7, 1949, in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. My favorite part is Mr. Phillips’ description of Mabel Ringling, who wore leather hip boots and carried a pistol, just in case she came across any rattlesnakes or alligators while she was overseeing his work on the museum.

John H. Phillips interview, August 7, 1949, Sarasota Herald Tribune

One final, crazy thing. When I started this blog, I mentioned that my family has been visiting Longboat Key for 15 years. Of course, I knew about Sarasota being the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I’ve also travelled along Ringling Boulevard, driven over the John Ringling Causeway Bridge and admired the Ringling statues on St. Armand’s Circle for what seems a million times. However, in all those years, I can’t believe I’ve never visited these amazing properties, nor toured the famous Ringling Art Museum.

Next year, you can bet I will.

Read Chapter 7…

9 Comments

  1. I did not know that was where the Ringling brothers lived. Another very interesting blog sista! Were you a private investigator in a past life or somethin????? I woulda hired ya!!

    Keep it up Darlin 😉

  2. Kathy Alm... |

    Take me with on the Ringling Tour. Hate to leave that beautiful Gulf while I’m there, but you have started an itch that needs to be scratched. Long live Villa A Am Meer and it’s memories!

  3. So, another sidebar to your interesting information. If you’d really like to get into the “underground happenings” of early Circus life, I recommend that you indulge yourself in the novel, “Water for Elephants” written by Sara Gruen. It’s a thrilling, romantic story of the traveling circus set in the era of the Great Depression. You won’t be able to put the book down, and it will surely change your perception of the circus world we all seem to know! Happy reading.

  4. Julie, I’ve been meaning to read that book forever! If anyone has a copy I could borrow, let me know!

  5. This is great Joy, very interesting. Have you ever gone through the Circus World at Baraboo WI. It is a fun place (or was a few years ago) Hope you find out more info on your Villa Am Meer.

  6. At long last, the construction of the 2 groins seems to be finished and the workmen are cleaning up the Villa Am Meer property. Just hope they restore it to it’s pre-construction condition as I look over it from my windows.

  7. Albert, thanks for your reply. I’m very anxious to know what the plans are for the current property. Are you at the Islander Club? A while back, I think I read in the minutes from the Longboat City Council that the current owner, David Colburn, has been staying at the Islander Club (I may be wrong… it might have been the previous owners, Jason and Arthur Woods… can’t remember). At any rate, I would really like to get a hold of Mr. Colburn to find out his plans for the property. I was also wondering if I might arrange to tour through the house with one/some of the Benedict family members (if they agree). From what I could gather online, David Colburn, is a private investor based in Northbrook, Illinois. He is President of the general partner of Lincolnshire Associates, a group that buys loans typically to foreclose and own property. That tidbit makes me nervous. Not sure if this owner has the same plans to keep the historical integrity of the property intact. Hope so.

  8. I so enjoyed research, I, too. have walked past Villa Am Meer for many years and have always wondered about it, Thank you so much !

  9. The Ringling circus connection began, with the circus veterinarian, [don’t know his name] when not attending to the circus animals he was with the Kohl’s and their pets at Villa Am Meer.

Leave a Reply