Historic Estates and Museums in Florida

For many generations the wealthy made Florida their seasonal home so the state has many historic mansions that are open to the public. We were able to visit a few.

In Sarasota the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art is a 66 acre complex that includes the State Art Museum of Florida, Circus Museum, Ca’ d’Zan mansion, and Bayfront Gardens.

John Ringling was one of the five brothers who owned and operated the circus rightly called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” His success with the circus and entrepreneurial skills helped to make him, in the Roaring Twenties, one of the richest men in America. In 1911, John and his wife, Mable, purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota. In 1912, they began spending winters in what was then still a small town. They became active in the community and purchased more and more real estate. In 1922 they built a Venetian style mansion on Sarasota Bay that has 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. It was named Ca’ d’ Zan which means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect. You can only tour the first floor.

Because John and Mabel Ringling loved to buy fine art as they travelled the world, they built a significant collection. After their mansion was completed, John built a 21 gallery museum to house the treasure trove of paintings and art objects, highlighted by his collection of Old Masters, including Velazquez, Poussin, van Dyke and Rubens.

By the time of his death in 1936, John Ringling had lost most of his fortune during the depression. Once one of the world’s wealthiest men, it is said he died with only $311 in the bank. He willed his Sarasota mansion, the museum, and his entire art collection to the state of Florida. In 1948, the Museum’s first Director used Ringling memorabilia to open the first Circus Museum. It showcases equipment, posters, historic films from the circus and there is a huge miniature model of the circus.

The museum complex fell into disrepair until 2000 when the state passed governance of the museum to the University of Florida. The state and the university raised funds to repair and restore all the buildings to how they look today. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit!

In Fort Myers we visited the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The sign gives a short history of how both men came to build homes in Florida.

Both estates sit along the Caloosahatchee River surrounded by beautiful flowers, trees and tall palms. You cannot enter either home but can look through doorways into the rooms of the first floor. The photos below are of Edison’s home.

Ford’s home, The Mangoes, is next door. It is a Craftsman bungalow and inside has a more rustic look.

In addition to the estates there is the Edison Ford Museum that focuses on the lives of these two men and their innovations that improved society.

You can also visit Edison’s Botanic Research laboratory where Edison worked to find an American source for rubber.

A very unique structure in Ona, Florida which is in the middle of nowhere is Solomon’s Castle. Howard Solomon, an artist from New York bought 40 acres in Florida and built this home by hand in the 70’s. The castle is covered in a shiny skin of repurposed aluminum printing plates, pressed to look like chiseled stone. The structure features multiple towers and turrets, a dungeon, a drawbridge, a lighthouse and a wide moat, where Solomon built a 65-foot-long replica of a Spanish galleon. The ship’s interior houses the Boat in the Moat, a restaurant. We have never heard of Howard Solomon but apparently he is world renowned for his art and sculptures made of recycled materials of all kinds. Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside the castle where much of his work is displayed.

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