The Ringling Estate in Sarasota is tri-partite: the Ringling Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, and Ca d'Zan, the home of John and Mable Ringling. Tiled tower on Ca d'Zan Admission to one includes admission to all three.

We arrived just in time to be booked into the 1 p.m. tour of Ca d'Zan (the other two buildings are self-guided). We walked through lawns shaded by several large banyan trees said to be a gift from Thomas Edison, and past a small rose garden to the Ringling's palatial home built on the edge of Sarasota Bay. At the time Ca d'Zan (meaning House of John in Venetian dialect) was built, John Ringling owned most of the land across the Bay. With the enthusiasm that only money can buy, and a love for vital, romantic art and architecture of Venice, Mable Ringling designed this 22,000-square-foot house View from the patio which was built in 1924-6. An immense art museum was also built on the 66-acre estate to house the Ringlings' art collection.

At that time Sarasota, and much of west Florida for that matter, was undeveloped swamp. John Ringling, having made his fortune with the circus, bought up large parts of the Sarasota area and then made the city the winter quarters for his circus, moving it from Bridgeport, Connecticut. Sure enough, tourists came in droves, riding the railways in which Ringling had invested and then buying Sarasota real estate from Ringling and other Sarasota developers. Ca d'Zan played a large role in Ringling's plans as he invited the rich and famous to visit, and many of them obliged by investing in winter vacation property in the area. Ornate balcony

The plan went well until the Depression, when the number of plutocrats seeking fashionable Florida winter quarters declined precipitously. Mable died, John remarried and bequeathed the entire estate to the State of Florida, along with a $1.6M endowment for its upkeep. He died in 1936.

Unfortunately Florida mismanaged the property for quite some time, not using the endowment to keep the buildings up. Finally efforts were initiated to restore the mansion and show it to the public. The restoration required due to the State's neglect has cost more than ten times the original cost of John Ringling's bedroomthe mansion and furnishings. Today only the first two floors are shown; the intention is to make the entire mansion safe and secure to allow complete public viewing. Recently the management of the estate has been given to Florida State University, which seems like an appropriate choice, as there is enormous educational value in this property.

We chose to view Ca d'Zan first and recommend this strategy to other visitors. There is a wonderful architectural and artistic unity to the home that jumps out at the visitor. We snapped many photos, and could send more to interested readers. The FSU academics are carefully expertising the long- Willi Pogany ceiling neglected furnishings -- too bad the State didn't at least inventory the estate properly at the time of the bequest, while living people could have identified most items. One room had a ceiling by Willi Pogany, depicting dancers from around the world.

The heat and humidity yesterday were intolerable, but fortunately all three museums were air conditioned. The Circus museum appeared to be a work in progress, containing somewhat of a hodgepodge of circus memorabilia and models, including the circus wagon which we instantly recognized from boxes of Circus ringmaster's stand Animal Crackers! There was a truck mounted with a cannon for propelling a human cannonball, and an intricate miniature model of a three-ring big-top and associated circus paraphernalia.

The Ringling Museum of Art was built to house the 600-plus art objects that John and Mable Ringling had collected by the 1920s. They opened it to the public in 1930, and it must have dazzled the visitors, with its pink facade, formal gardens, replica of Michelangelo's David, and the many gallery rooms. As we walked through we were reminded of our visit to the Wallace collection in London - another private art collection of a passionate art lover, with perhaps too many paintings displayed. The high point is Rubens' Triumph of the Eucharist series, "the only example of a large-scale cycle by Rubens displayed outside Europe." Reproduction of Michelangelo's David

FSU appears to be exploiting all the educational, artistic and cultural value of the estate; it makes a great deal of sense to turn a project like this over to a university. Should other famous mansions, like San Simeon, also be managed by universities?

While we were retreating to our hotel, we talked about famous mansions and their builders, including Mount Vernon and Monticello, as well as the Gates and Tyson mansions of today. Wouldn't it be nice if someone were to write a book with an interesting selection of great American houses and their owners? It might open the eyes of some of today's nouveaux riches to the possibilities of artistic and cultural improvement instead of simpling trying to out-spend another wealthy individual!