General Contractor: Willis Smith Construction  I  Photography: Greg Wilson

FL ASLA Award in Institutional Design

Media: The Cultural Landscape Foundation – Ringling, The Ringling Bayfront Gardens

Sarasota, FL

John Ringling is easily Sarasota’s most influential and historic figures. Best known for converting the circus from wagons to rail, Ringling Bros. Circus was a world-class show in the early 1900’s. John and Mable Ringling made Sarasota their second home in 1911 and purchased 20 acres of waterfront property with plans to build a Venetian Gothic Mansion known as the Ca d’ Zan and botanical grounds. During the land boom of the 1920’s Ringling started construction on his ornate mansion and began to develop the area into a fashionable resort town for his family and affluent friends. In the spirit of America’s Gilded Age, the Ringlings gradually acquired a significant personal art collection and eventually built a Florentine-style palace for his treasures on his Sarasota bay front property. In the 1930’s the mansion, museum and grounds were bequeathed to the State of Florida.

Due to lack of government funding, the care and maintenance the estate required was not provided and the grounds suffered from neglet. Governance of this treasure was transferred to Florida State University in 2000 and, with new funding, Sarasota’s legacy has undergone significant restoration including a six-year, $15 million restoration. Although several landscape materplans had been developed for the property including one by Frederick Stresau in 1952 and one by EDSA in 1980, the landscape and waterfront area south of the Ca d’ Zan had not seen significant improvement since the mid 1950s.  The waterfront area, arguably the most important portion of the estate property, was essentially treated as left over space that had grown to include mechanical equipment with large  chillers and electrical transformers hidden behind a conspicuous white vinyl fence, uneven and poorly maintained lawn space and an ill-conceived asphalt parking lot that had grown haphazardly over the years and was now showing its age with pot holes and lack of striping for parking or drive isles delineation.

With funding from a generous benefactor, the museum was able to commission the landscape architect to create a master plan for the future of this world-class museum that would focus on the area south of the mansion and provide connectivity between the buildings and grounds, showcase the waterfront and reflect the grandeur displayed in the Ca d’ Zan. The primary objectives for the first phase were to create usable spaces that would provide outdoor experiences for the museum guests, circulation that was clear and parking for the numerous special events the museum hosts. Overall, the plan was conceived to underscore the original intentions of the grounds as a botanical destination that reflected the passion for the European gardens that the Ringlings expressed while living at the Ca d’ Zan.

For this first built phase, the utilities and mechanical equipment that obstructed views of the mansion and waterfront were moved and hidden behind planted walls. A “piazza” was designed with pavers arranged in a pattern inspired by the existing gothic bayfront terrace immediately behind the Ca d’ Zan, establishing a sense of entry to the waterfront as well as a practical space for hosting public and private tented events.

A promenade lined with royal palms activates the space by connecting the mansion’s bayfront terrace and piazza to the art museum courtyard – inviting guests to stroll along the waterfront enjoying views of the water and city skyline. Seating is interspersed under massive banyan trees and royal palms allowing a reprieve from the Florida sun while exploring the grounds. The terminus of the axis is a locally commissioned outdoor sculpture with the backdrop of Sarasota Bay. The historically-inspired design accomplishes the goal of creating a place of tranquility while also linking several disparate areas for a clear direction of circulation for the visitor.