The Ralph Caples Legacy
Throughout their lives, Ralph and Ellen Caples were active in the social, political and economic affairs of Sarasota. Ralph Caples advanced money to the city to create a waterfront park in 1937. He served as director of the Chamber of Commerce in 1925-26 and 1933, and donated the land for the city's first municipal airport in 1929. Most importantly, he was instrumental in convincing the Ringling Brothers to move the winter headquarters for the circus from Connecticut to Sarasota in 1927. Ellen Caples was long considered Sarasota's First Lady because of her active support of the arts, music, theater and education until her death in 1971 at the age of 98. She was a soloist for years of the First Presbyterian Church of New York.
The arrival of Ralph Caples (1872-1949) in Sarasota in 1899 on a delayed honeymoon provided the transition for the growth and development of Sarasota. At that time, he was a city passenger agent for the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company. Caples liked Sarasota and was well-aware of its potential. He also recognized the importance that a railroad would have to the city. Railroad lines extended only as far south as Tampa, so Caples embarked on a plan to make railroad access to Sarasota a reality. Along with T. C. Taliaferrro, President of the First National Bank of Tampa, Caples formed the Florida West Coast Railroad Company. The project was intended to be a highly kept secret, but the Seaboard Airline Railroad discovered Caples' plan. Suspicious of competition, the Seaboard rapidly began construction of its own line to Sarasota. Consequently, Caples abandoned his own plans. Nevertheless, Sarasota did acquire early railroad access to the north. Reaction was immediate; the town began to grow and real estate prices began to rise. Sarasota began to develop an identity as a winter tourist haven and the citizens envisioned the city becoming "one of the most famed tourist towns in the world."
Caples joined the New York Central Railroad in 1905 and became its general agent in 1913. In 1913 he built the Caples Building in downtown Sarasota. He continued his involvement in Sarasota's development by investing in Sarasota real estate. For several years after his arrival, Sarasota was his winter home. On July 20, 1909 Caples purchased the W. H. English home at Shell Beach.
If Caples first major contribution to Sarasota was to provide the impetus for the extension of the railroad to Sarasota, his second major contribution was to persuade John and Charles Ringling to come to Sarasota and eventually make it their home and winter circus headquarters. The Ringlings were well aware of Sarasota's existence before 1900. A friend, Charles N. Thompson of the Sells-Forepaugh Circus had been convinced by several acquaintances who had invested in Sarasota real estate that he too should buy land in Sarasota. Thompson purchased 154 acres along Sarasota Bay in 1895, subdivided the land, and offered the lots for sale. W. H. English of the Wallace Brother Circus purchased one of the first lots.
The Ringlings were close friends of Thompson and he endeavored for several years to convince them that they should come to Sarasota. Thompson and Caples recognized the potential impact that the Ringling name could have on Sarasota's development. By 1911, they had convinced the Ringlings to come to Sarasota and in January 1912, John Ringling purchased the Thompson home from Ralph Caples (Caples had purchased the home from Thompson three months earlier). John then persuaded Charles Ringling to purchase the adjacent property. With the acquisition of this property, the Ringlings permanent association with the city of Sarasota began.
The Caples Estate is the smallest and southern-most estate in a Historic District composed of the contiguous estates of John Ringling, Charles Ringling and Ralph Caples. The physical connection of their estates is symbolic of the personal and professional relationships of these men. The estates physically perpetuate their legacies and attest to their significance in the history of Sarasota.
The Caples estate was bequeathed to New College in 1962 by Ellen Caples, who lived in the main house until her death in 1971. At the time, she said, "My home, which my husband and I built, as well as the land surrounding it, seems ideal for use with this educational institution. I am delighted that the identity of the home and land will be retained for such a worthy purpose."
Today, the Caples Mansion houses faculty offices and art history classrooms. The nearby Carriage House is home to the Environmental Studies Program. The property also includes a storage shed, and is the location of the New College sailing program, as well as a popular launching site for kayaks and canoes.
Alfred Clas, who designed the Charles Ringling mansion, was reported to have designed the Caples Residence. The Caples residence was similar in plan to the Charles Ringling residence and the John and Mable Ringling Museum. Designed around three sides of a patio that opened to the bay, the two-story stucco masonry building contained two living rooms, a dining room, a sun porch, four bedrooms and four baths. The dining room rose a full two-stories and had a covered ceiling. Immediately to the east of the residence and connected to it by a masonry wall was a two-story garage and apartment, also exhibiting Mediterranean Revival characteristics. A two-bay, one-story storage house stood east of the garage.