The Charles Ringling Legacy
New College’s historic Bayfront Campus sits on the former estate of circus magnate Charles Edward Ringling (1863-1926), the older brother of John Ringling. Charles was one of the owners of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and was in charge of production, while his wife, Edith, participated in the business and was a member of the board of directors of the circus.
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.
In the 1960s, New College of Florida purchased the estate for development of its new campus. The former Ringling mansion is now College Hall, the signature building on the New College campus. Made of Etowah marble, it features a music room with burnished wood floor, timbered ceilings and a vintage Aeolian pipe organ, an expansive living room with fireplace, an enclosed terrace with Renaissance Italian decor, and a wrought iron staircase with a contemporary mural paying homage to the Ringling legacy. Outside, one can find a spacious grassy lawn and spectacular vistas overlooking Sarasota Bay. There is also a rose garden with several rare species of roses and a champion Camphor tree -- the largest of its kind in North America.
An imposing stone archway on Bay Shore Road was once the vehicular gateway to the Charles Ringling estate. Located across from the library, the arch is still in place, but it now opens to a pedestrian promenade leading directly to the mansion and Sarasota Bay. It is not hard to imagine 1920’s era roadsters making their way down this long and elegant drive! In the circle formed by the driveway entrance, there was once an elaborate fountain and pool. It was replaced by the memorial to the founders of New College in 1973. South of the circle and extending eastward once flourished an orange grove. On the bayfront side of the main Ringling home was one of the first swimming pools in Florida. Long in disuse when acquired by the College, it was eliminated in 1976 for safety reasons.
The Ringling Mansion was, in its day, a palatial residence. The interior decoration of what is now College Hall was done by Marshall Field and Company of Chicago. Some of the Field family had their own magnificent home in South Sarasota, now the exclusive yacht and tennis oriented Field Club. Furnishings for the Ringling home were imported from many parts of the world, chiefly Europe. The rooms were filled with distinctive and elegant furniture built by Sheraton and Hepplewhite in England well over 200 years ago, selected in keeping with the English design of the house itself.
The 58 by 30 foot living room has a low wood wainscot with a marble base. The floor is of yellow Siena marble and there is a magnificent marble fireplace facing the entrance. All woodwork and walls were initially finished in old ivory with an overall patterned plaster ceiling in white. One of the most exciting features of the room, and indeed in the whole house, was the exquisite rug designed by Mrs. Ringling, a woman of great artistic talents and interests. The huge rug was made in France in the manner of some of the drawing room rugs found in French Royal palaces. The size of the room is accentuated by the high ceiling and by a semi-circular marble staircase, which leads directly from the northeast corner of the room to the second floor.
The living room provided access through a small hallway to the dining room and kitchen areas, and to the sumptuous billiard room, now occupied by the College’s General Counsel. In the midst of the decorous atmosphere of the rest of the house, this room represented a striking change. Measuring 24 by 20 feet, the room has a floor and a wainscoting of black marble. There is a marble fireplace and at the west end a fountain with a bowl cut of one piece of Verde antique marble. The walls are richly decorated with mural paintings in bright colors, and the ceiling is color and gilt. When the mansion was acquired, the room had an ornate billiard table with carved winged griffins as legs. The table was later given to the Ringling Museum of Art 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.
In the Ringling era, French doors opened on either side of the fireplace onto a narrow covered terrace which, in turn, stepped down to a large outdoor tiled patio facing west across the bay to Longboat Key and the famed Florida sunsets. Enclosed in 1965, the former patio was a place where Ringling guests could stroll out and watch the sunsets or enjoy the evening breezes after meals. The roof of this covered area has high, vaulted and frescoed ceilings. The tiled patio once had a fountain and pool in its center, and broad marble steps lead from the patio down twin tiled sidewalks to the waterfront and waterfront walkway which bordered the seawall.
The dining room, now used by Admissions staff to meet with prospective students, is 30 feet long and was once occupied by a massive dining room table. Early Florentine in character, the room has a random patterned tile floor and a French stone fireplace. A vaulted, beautifully frescoed ceiling enriches the room. Walls are decorated 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 leads to the serving pantry and kitchen.
Another set of French doors at the South end of the room open to a set of marble steps leading down to the Music Room. This 60 by 30 foot room was planned for the performance of music and has admirable acoustics. The room has a teak planked floor and much of the walls are hand fashioned of American walnut. At each end, cleverly crafted storage spaces are created behind the paneling. A wood beamed ceiling is finished in stain with applied painting decoration. One of the main features of the room is a massive fireplace of travertine, delicately carved. The room contains an elaborate organ console, built at a cost of $40,000. The wall opposite the console is devoted largely to the massive three story organ pipes and some of the electronic elements of the instrument and an echo organ are located in other parts of the house. The room also once contained, according to story, a piano, flown in one of the early Ford tri-motor planes especially for a house concert by the, famous Mme. Schumann Heink.
When the Ringlings lived in the house, the Music Room was used primarily as a reception area with furniture and area rugs. The furnishings could be removed to convert the room for dancing during festive parties. Ringling children and grandchildren attended parties in this room under the chandeliers festooned with balloons. At the South side of the room, another set of French doors gave access to a covered promenade leading to Mrs. Sanford’s former home, now Cook Hall. Today, the white-washed building is home to administrative and faculty offices for New College. The two-story living room, frequently used for College receptions as well as for informal meetings for students and faculty, has French doors leading to a terrace and fountain overlooking the bay.
Back in College Hall, the marble steps in the Northeast side of the main living room lead up to the second floor, which is now used for faculty offices and classrooms. To the right at the head of the stairs and also 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 is 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 hand side of the hallway. Along the right side of this hallway windows and a door give access to a small covered balcony and the bay beyond.
At the end of the hallway is an imposing wrought-iron and brass-bound gate with a secure lock. This opens into a hallway with access to Mrs. Ringling’ former bedroom and bath on the left and Mr. Ringling’s on the far right. In the middle was a large common sitting room with its own fireplace. In the hallway on the north side was a large walk in safe for the protection of family valuables.
In addition to the two main residences, several other structures on the grounds were part of the original Ringling estate. A two-story carriage house to the Northeast of the main house once housed several cars and a workshop on the first floor and, on the second floor, three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchenette. This building is now known as Robertson Hall and houses the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. East of this building was once a small two story house, apparently occupied by the estate caretakers, and further east, the former barn. Today, the caretaker house is the Division of Social Sciences, and the barn is the student-run Four Winds Café.
Mrs. Ringling occupied the main house until her death in 1953 and Mrs. Sanford or members of her family lived in the adjoining house until 1965. The main house and its furnishings were to be sold at auction in 1958, when Gerald Collins, a former legislator, dog and horse track owner and entrepreneur, halted the auction and bought what remained of the furnishings along with the house. He later sold the house and grounds to Mr. and Mrs. Fred S. Wynans of Pennsylvania who renovated it and lived in it with their large family until it was sold to New College in 1962. Mrs. Sanford’s home was acquired by purchase in 1966. After her death, her former home was known as South Hall, and in 1980 it was named in honor of A.Werk Cook, a longtime College and Foundation trustee and advocate. He was married to Jane Bancroft Cook, for whom the library is named.
As we look to the future, New College of Florida is mindful of the legacy of its past. We are proud to be the custodian of a campus of great historical and community significance.