The History of College Hall

The Charles Ringling Mansion History
researched by A.S.I.D.
{as included in Ryan & Julia's registration packet}

The history can be traced to the initial visit to Sarasota by Charles Ringling's younger brother, John, in 1909. Spurred by his brother's enthusiasm, Charles and wife, Edith, came to view the gulfside village of Sarasota (pop. in 1910: 840). In 1912, they bought some of Charles Thompson's property which ran between Bayshore Road and the bay, north of the existingcity and adjacent to the acreage John had chosen for himself.

For 12 years, the Charles Ringlings alternated living between existing wooded houses on their new estate and their home in Evanston, Illinois. They became integral factors in the development of the state and the town. Charles founded the Ringling Bank on Main Street. During the great depression when it closed, its depositors received 100 cents on the dollar at his wife's insistence. She ultimately dipped into her own purse to insure that no one lost a penny.

Charles Ringling gave property to the city for a courthouse and was instrumental in formulating its design. He also financed construction of the Sarasota Terrace hotel. In 1924, the Ringlings began to build the million-dollar mansion that was to be their home. The construction took nearly two years, at an estimated cost of $880,000. Another $300,000 was spent on furnishings from around the world, primarily the Orient, coordinated by the designers from Marshall Fields in Chicago.

At the same time, to the south of the house and connected by a roofed, arched walkway, the circus founder built a smaller, Mediterranean-style house (with a price tag of three-quarters of a million) for his daughter Hester. That house remained the home of Hester Ringling Sanford until her death in 1964; it was subsequently acquired by the College and is now known as Cook Hall.

The CHarles Ringling home followed the classic lines of 18th century English architecture; its exterior walls, terrace, buttresses and the cochere were built of pink Etowah Georgia marble. Construction workers and their families were brought from the north for the mammoth undertaking, and often donkeys were used to pull up slabs of marble. It is said that considerable difficulty was experienced getting the cars containing the marble through from the quarries. During the Florida boom, the railroads had embargoes in effect that prevented shipments. Barges brought in other materials, including the tiles from France, imported via Cuba. That tile, believed to be extremely durable, proved subject to mildew. For the barges, a channel was dredged and later served the Ringlings' yacht, Sympbonia.

The house faced east situated at the end of a palm-lined drive with a circular sweep under the port cochere where broad marble steps led to the entrance doors. The property was separated from Bayshore Road by a tall iron stake fence, and iron gates swung from the gateway above a ribbed cattle guard. The property fronted along the Tamiami Trail, its eastern boundary of 990 feet and extends back 2,000 feet to the shores of Sarasota Bay, its western boundary.

The west facade overlooks the bay and both stories featured arched loggias. The first floor loggia was screened and adjoined a wide, marble terrace. (The latter has since been roofed and enclosed, but the architectural design was faithfully adhered to, with arched windows set in the new stucco wall.) The wide tile walkways, centered with grassy plots for lawn chairs and umbrella tables ran from the terrace to the bay, were lined with trees and huge urns of flowers. A little to the north, only a few feet from the water, one of the first swimming pools in Florida was built. Unused for years when acquired by the College in 1962, it was eliminated in 1976 for safety reasons.

The interior of the house was equally gracious. Long, double-swinging casement windows flooded the rooms with light. The enormous living room (58 by 30 feet) had a yellow Sienna marble floor. The ceiling, done i a palazzo stykle featured three ornate crystal chandeliers. The low wood wainscot was based with Botticino marble and the same stone was used for the fireplace and piers and the wide, semicircular stairway which is accentuated by a high ceiling. All woodwork and walls were finished in old ivory.

One of the most exciting features of the room and indeed the entire house was the exquisite rub designed by Edith Ringling. She was a woman of artistic talents and interest; the huge rug was constructed on the floor of a cheese factory in Savigny, France. It was done in the manner of some of the drawing room rugs found in French royal palaces.

The dining room was early Florentine in character and has a random tile floor and a mantel of imported French Caen stones, with a hearth of Gray Sienna. It featured an intricately decorated, vaulted ceiling and low walnut wainscot.

The walls of the billiard room were decorated with murals of Pompeiian scenes (signed "R.L. Tef Willinger, August 1936") above wainscotting three feet high in Belgian Black marble, with a series of pilasters around the walls featuring Verde Antique marble and field of Tinos marble with Verde Antique dots. The room has an ornate billiard table with carvved, winged Griffins as legs. The table was later sold and given to the Ringling Museum for installation in the John Ringling residence. Along with the table went the bronze billiard table lamp and a Chinese motif woven rug in the Aubusson pattern created especially to fit the outline of the table.

The central hallway to the north leads to another that provided access to the private elevator, the butler's pantry, kitchen, pantry rooms and the basement. Two other wooden doors lead off the central hallway to the west opened into the dining room. Measuring 30 by 15 feet, the room was once occupied by a massive dining table. Early Florentine in character, the room has a random patterned tile floor and a French stone fireplace. It is highlighted by a vaulted, beautifully frescoed ceiling with a low wainscot in American walnut. Two china cabinets were built into the north wall (one was removed to install air conditioning). A service door on the north wall leading to the serving pantry and kitchen is now sealed. A set of French doors on the south end of the room opens directly onto the former patio, enclosed in 1965. Ringling guests could stroll out and watch the sunsets or enjoy the evening breeze after meals.

The marble steps on the northeast side of the main living room lead up to the second floor. To the right at the head of the stairs and straight ahead were two rooms originally for the Ringling children. A hallway to the north leads to the former servant's quarters. The north end of the second floor was dropped down a few feet so that the architects could squeeze in three floors in the north wing, providing an attic for storage, for the electronic parts of the organ and for access to the roof.

Back at the head of the main stairs, a long hallway leads to the south end of the house. This once provided access to a series of bedrooms on the left side of the hallway. Along the right side of this hallway, windows and a door provide access to a small covered balcony that once overlooked the open patio and the bay beyond. At the end of the hallway stands an imposing wrought iron and brassbound gate with a secure lock. This opens into a hallway with access to the Ringling's HIS and HER suite. In the middle is a large common sitting room with its own fireplace. On the north side, a large walk-in safe protected the family valuables.

Several other structures on the grounds also were part of the original Ringling estate. A two-story carriage house to the north east of the main house once housed several cars and a first floor workshop and a complete residential suite on the second. This building is now known as Robertson Hall.

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