Historic homes to see: A walk through Florida history

By LISA STARK

Ca’ d’Zan in Sarasota, once the residence of John and Mable Ringling of Ringling Brothers circus fame.

Ca’ d’Zan in Sarasota, once the residence of John and Mable Ringling of Ringling Brothers circus fame.

If you’re in the mood for a little time travel this summer, you need not invest in a futuristic time machine. All you need is a tank of gasoline in your car to take an exciting journey through Florida’s history.

A prime destination for anyone craving a taste of the past is Ca’ d’Zan in Sarasota, once the residence of John and Mable Ringling and one of Florida’s grandest houses. Completed in 1926 at a cost of about $1.5 million, the structure used architectural elements taken from several of Mrs. Ringling’s favorite places — the facade of the Doge’s Palace, the Ca’ d’Oro on the Grand Canal in Venice, and the tower of the old Madison Square Garden in New York, where her husband’s circus regularly appeared.

The mansion’s antique columns, doorways and historic rooms were purchased at auctions and installed under Mable’s direction, giving it the look of a Baroque-style castle.

ringlinghouseThe house is centered on a large courtyard that served as the main living room, around which 41 bedrooms and 15 baths are located. Many of the furnishings in the house reflect such varied styles as the Italian and French renaissances and French Baroque.

The ceilings of the ballroom were painted by Willy Pogany, the set designer for the Ziegfeld Follies, and the game room features a portrait of the Ringlings in fancy costumes at the Carnival in Venice. Ca’ d’Zan is part of the Ringling Museum complex in Sarasota, at U.S. 41 and University Boulevard.

Second on the list are the Cigar Workers Houses in Ybor City. Moved from their original sites and restored to their appearance in the heyday of cigar making, they are houses once occupied by cigar factory workers and their families. In 1886, the hand-rolling of cigars became an important industry in Tampa when Don Vicente Martinez Ybor moved from Key West to open his factory here.

Cigar Workers House in Ybor City.

Cigar Workers House in Ybor City.

The community that sprang up around the Ybor Cigar factory included Cubans, Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Jews, and they each established their own newspapers, restaurants, social clubs and medical facilities.

The single-story Cigar Workers Houses were built with Florida pine, hand-split cedar or cypress shakes, and pine-plank floors. They had no heat, electricity or running water. The Cigar Workers Houses are at the Ybor City State Museum, 1818 9th Ave. in Tampa.

Heading south toward Ellenton, you will find the Gamble Plantation, the only antebellum mansion on Florida’s west coast that is still standing.

Through the years, it has survived Indian uprisings, Civil War incursions and natural disasters. The elegant residence, completed in 1850, was built by Major Robert Gamble, a veteran of the Seminole Wars who had moved from Tallahassee to establish an immense sugar cane plantation.

The Gamble Plantation in Ellenton.

The Gamble Plantation in Ellenton.

The eighteen 25-foot-tall columns were considered at the time to be symbols of sophistication. The columns support verandas on three sides, in typical Southern mansion style.

Gamble owned 3,500 acres and had 151 slaves working on the plantation. Inside the mansion are period furnishings that evoke the spirit of the vanished era. The Gamble Plantation is at 3708 Patten Ave., off U.S. 301 in Ellenton.

Further south in Fort Myers is the winter home of inventor Thomas Edison, which he built on 14 acres for himself and his bride, Mina Miller, in 1925. The New England-style house on the Caloosahatchee River is typically Queen Anne in style, with a broad, shady porch on the ground level, French doors, and a pergola between the family and guest houses.

Designed by Edison, the house was one of the first prefabricated buildings in the country, having been built in sections in Maine, then shipped to Fort Myers. The estate is filled with Edison’s artifacts, electroliers, laboratory, office and car collection. It also contains Edison’s tropical botanical garden, where he planted more than a thousand varieties of plants imported from all over the world. Most interesting is the banyan tree, which was only two inches in diameter in 1925 and now covers about an acre of ground.

Winter home of Thomas Edison, located in Fort Myers.

Winter home of Thomas Edison, located in Fort Myers.

Adjacent to Edison’s house is the charming home that Henry Ford bought to be near his dear friend Edison. The houses are so close that it’s easy to walk through the picket fence dividing them at the Friendship Gate. Henry and Clara Ford purchased the Mangoes, a 3.5 acre-estate where they could vacation with the Edisons and enjoy their garden filled with citrus, papaya and mango trees.

Throughout both homes are interesting items that convey the creative genius of both of these American leaders. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are located at 2350 McGregor Blvd. in Fort Myers.

With all the historical treasures to be found around Florida this summer, there’s no reason to stagnate at home … so get into your time machine (or car) and start exploring!

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