John Ringling was the greatest impresario of his day. He created the iconic circus venue of 20th century legends, and he knew how to make money.
Commenting on a huge portrait of Ringling in the grand hall of Ca’ d’Zan, the incisive social commentator of the 1920s, Will Rogers, said it was the first time he saw John’s hand in his own pocket…
The love of his life, Mabel, was also a savvy art lover especially of the popular Italian Venetian Renaissance era. With unlimited funds, John and Mabel prodigiously purchased great master artist of the era , furniture and a queen’s entire opera house. They employed top artist to paint original works of art throughout Ca’ d’Zan on ceilings, inside bathroom cabinet doors, on pillars – every square inch of this Venetian palace is art.
Ca’ d’Zan was Mabel’s project. It was meant from the outset to be a showplace, just like her husband’s circus. At a cost of $1,500.000 ($20,000,000 in 21st century dollars) the mid 1920s Venetian palace on the shore of Sarasota Bay is a palace.
Although Mabel died nearly a decade before John, he respected her wishes donating Ca’ d’Zan and its priceless art collection in his will to the state of Florida. Florida State University maintains the mansion, its art museum and the opera house as an integral component of its Sarasota campus.
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Tiffany conjures images of ultimate luxury. Diamonds and gleaming silver flood our minds at the sound of that name. Yet Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Tiffany & Company founder Charles, was an artistic polymath who put his stamp on paintings, shimmering glass, mosaics, architecture, pottery, bronze and objet d’art. He was the genius that reinvented interior design for the generation of the Gilded Age.
For lovers of Art Nouveau in America as envisioned by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933) mecca is the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art owns the largest and most comprehensive collection of Tiffany art in the world. Like the era that fostered both Louis Comfort Tiffany and affluent Winter Park, the museum is the product of a vast Gilded Age fortune.
Jeannette Genius (1909-1989) was the granddaughter of Chicago industrialist Charles Morse. Charles had a keen appreciation for art and warm Florida winters. First wintering and then retiring to this wealthy suburb of Orlando in the late 19th century, Charles Morse became a major benefactor and real estate baron in Winter Park.
Jeannette’s mother, Elizabeth Morse Genius, was an accomplished artist and patron of the era’s modern art – American impressionism, and Tiffany Studios. Jeannette inherited both wealth and an artistic passion, pursuing her own successful career as an interior designer. After spending much time with her grandfather in Winter Park she chose the town as her permanent residence.
Her family’s philanthropy had already made a mark on Winter Park’s Rollins College, and at the age of 27 Jeannette started a decades-long association on the Board of Trustees. More importantly she met and married a dashing Rollins art professor, Hugh McKean (1908-1995) who himself had an intimate connection to Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany had designed his magnificent Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall, in 1903 as a showcase for everything he loved. He intended that it would eventually become a residential institution to foster young artists. In 1930 a young Hugh McKean spent months at Laurelton Hall as one of Tiffany’s students. Although Hugh’s family was well to do, it was the match of love, art and Jeannette’s vast fortune that allowed the couple to fulfill their dream.
It’s difficult to believe that even before the death of Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1933, his designs had become passé. During the 1940s and 1950s Jeannette and Hugh amassed a personal collection in every medium of Tiffany Studios designs. They established the Morse Museum and the Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation, which owns and funds museum operations. More importantly, through their work they revived the keen international interest in Louis Comfort Tiffany that grows stronger as time passes.
Upon hearing in 1957 of the tragic fire that destroyed Laurelton Hall they set out to salvage and restore everything they could from stained glass windows, architectural artifacts and Tiffany’s masterpiece, the Byzantine Chapel he designed for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. The chapel was a creation of love and a marketing tour de force that catapulted Tiffany’s career to international fame. From its hand carved door, shimmering mosaics, stunning blue baptistery window to the revolutionary eight by ten foot, three dimensional Byzantine cross, the Electrolier, electrified with the aid of Thomas Edison, the chapel alone is worth a visit to the Morse Museum.
A visit to the Morse Museum is more than just gazing at beautifully displayed art. It’s meant to be an educational experience on Tiffany’s life and genius. Free detailed booklets in each gallery meticulously explain the exhibits. The lighting is stunning, illuminating objects in the manner intended for their original owners and eliciting sounds of awe as glass comes alive in shimmering glory. Archival videos and displays demonstrate the actual methods used by Tiffany Studio artists to create these magnificent objects.
An entire wing of the museum recreates as much as possible the feel of Laurelton Hall as Louis Comfort Tiffany would have wanted his guests to experience from the impressive entrance hall, his very modern dining room and what was salvaged of his beloved Daffodil Terrace. The Daffodil Terrace highlights Tiffany’s love for that flower and his skill in ceramics. In a glass walled enclosure complete with comfortable wicker chairs, the terrace invites museum visitors to relax, read and contemplate beauty. Contemplating beauty is the successful legacy of Tiffany, Jeannette, Hugh and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
Much is written in the media today concerning the inability to disconnect while on vacation – professionals glued to email and cell phones around the pool. Yet that’s hardly unique to the 21st century. In 1885 when Thomas Edison purchased 14 acres along the Caloosahatchee River as a winter retreat in the remote southwestern Florida farming hamlet of Fort Myers he had no intention of turning his mind off.
Although Thomas (1847-1931) Mina (1865-1947) and their children spent most winters at their Seminole Lodge estate, his office provides ample evidence he was still connected by correspondence to his invention laboratory at Menlo Park, NJ. Along with good friends Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford the Edison Botanical Research Corporation was established and a laboratory constructed on the estate in the 1920s. The goal was to make America independent of foreign rubber.
Edison dubbed Seminole Lodge his jungle. He and Mina surrounded their home with lush gardens. But first, they had to construct the houses.
The railroad was not extended to Fort Myers until 1904, which meant convenient travel was by ship. A 1,500 foot pier was built as a landing for family, guests and the materials necessary for Seminole Lodge. Prefab houses were also not new to the 21st century. The lumber for the two identical mirror-image houses that are Seminole Lodge was fabricated in Maine, shipped to Fort Myers and assembled on site.
The adjacent second house was originally the winter home of business partner Ezra Gulliland, but was bought back by Edison after a serious split with Gulliland. The spacious, airy wood structures were connected with a pergola and the second house turned into combination guest quarters, dining room and kitchen for Seminole Lodge. Both houses were electrified, of course, with power from both generators and batteries – all the product of Edison’s fertile mind.
Children of America’s great industrial age, Thomas and Mina were friends with other magnates of the day, especially Henry Ford. A frequent guest of the Edisons at Seminole Lodge, Ford purchased the beautiful yet modest Craftsman house in 1916 adjacent to Seminole Lodge. Although the Fords only used the home for two weeks each winter to celebrate Edison’s birthday, their friendship and business partnerships were life-long.
After Thomas Edison’s death at age 84 in 1931 Mina continued to winter at Seminole Lodge. Mina was Edison’s second wife having been widowed in the early 1880s when only in his 30s. The daughter of an inventor, university educated and an employee at the Menlo Park lab, Mina was as much an intellectual equal to her husband as a wife.
Mina was active managing their households, the botanical gardens and the Edison business ventures. Edison was said to greatly appreciate Mina’s intellect and input in discussing his many theories for everything from the phonograph, electric batteries to motion picture cameras. In 1947 Mina deeded the estate to the City of Fort Myers on condition that it be preserved as a public memorial to her husband’s genius.
Henry Ford sold his house in 1947, and it remained a private home until the city purchased it in 1988. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates is operated and maintained as a non-profit offering a plethora of tours and activities including an extensive museum dedicated to the genius of these two men. A visit to Edison’s jungle is to step back to an age where great ideas were conjured in the mind rather than by an electronic device – although Thomas probably would have invented the computer if he’d had time.
South Florida is the American mainland tropics and a festival based on a return of the sun – winter solstice/Christmas – seems lost when the sun shines for only a couple hours less during this season. Yet of course Christmas is beyond climate and all areas of the globe have their own expressions.
Lighted boat parades are a Florida tradition and why not considering the enormous number of privately owned sea craft in the state. Both towns and yacht clubs put on numerous floating displays during December.
Especially for children, St. Petersburg turned North Straub Park into Snowfest 2015 the first December weekend. Complete with 65 tons of snow that created a sledding area under the Banyan trees, the festival boasted an artificial ice skating platform, karaoke Christmas carol singing, crafts and, of course, sno-cones.
Traditional decorations on houses and the streets are popping up as if the tropic in all its natural glory does dress up for the holidays.
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Among Florida’s Roaring Twenties grand hotels it seems Al Capone slept in many, including Casa Marina. The mid-1920s Prohibition era was profitable for Florida including Jacksonville Beach. The beachfront Mediterranean Revival club-like Casa Marina, complete with a sprinkler system, opened in 1925 to a high living bi-coastal clientele.
Ninety years later on the deck of the Penthouse Lounge & Martini Bar overlooking the Atlantic’s pounding surf Casa Marina serves a premium Tequila Margareta – without the slushy ice – that I’m confident infamous Al would approve.
Read what intrigued even the big Al to Jacksonville Beach…
Blessed with Florida’s agricultural and ocean abundance at their doorstep, restaurants in St. Petersburg don’t have to search far for quality ingredients.
A relaxed Gulf of Mexico life style and plenty of Florida sunshine draw residents and tourists to a plethora of cafes, fine dining, bars and beach side venues serving traditional fried fish platters to truffled wild mushroom risotto. With an emphasis on independent ownership St. Petersburg chefs have the freedom to experiment or just create the best grilled grouper sandwich on the beach. Here’s a dozen to try in the St. Petersburg area…