Mabel Ringling and Ca’ d’Zan, the house that love built

SARASOTA, Fla.
“I’m a little bit obsessed with Mabel,” confessed Alice Murphy, without a shadow of shame.

In her capacity as PR manager at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, she was guiding me across the sprawling Ringling grounds to the mansion on the bay and giving me an impromptu tour as we went.

If one must be obsessed with a character like Mabel, these grounds — bequeathed to Sarasota by the Ringlings — are the only place to be. They are as close to one can get to the quiet, media-shy wife of a circus baron who oversaw the construction and decoration of Ca’ d’Zan.

Every reference book on Ca’ d’Zan — House of John — remarks that it truly is the House of Mabel, as she was present throughout the building, oversaw the mixing of colours and ensured that not one tile or nymph was out of place. But of course she named it Ca’ d’Zan because written between the lines of each of those references is how very much she loved her husband, who showed her the world and gave her the means and freedom to build a palace.

We do not know how Mabel and John met, though she might have been a dancer or other sort of performer in the circus he ran with his four brothers. We do know that they married when she was 30 and he was nine years older, and that they spent most of their time travelling with the circus or on their own, and that she had a special place in her heart for Venice.

They spent only three months of each year in Sarasota, but were pillars of the community. The real-estate baron side of John dreamed of turning the city into a resort paradise, and Ca’ d’Zan overlooked his lands across the bay.

While the grounds are demure and park-like, the Dwight James Baum-designed mansion is exactly what one expects of a circus family. It rises several stories in tones of copper and gold, with tiles as rich as sky and water. Inside are chandeliers and murals, and technologies at the cutting edge of the mid-1920s. It is rich and on the edge of gaudy.

Shy Mabel threw grand parties in and around the 57-room home and on their boat moored just outside the breakfast-room doors. She filled the palace with treasures from auctions, and with quirky design elements, like the sketched punctuation on her bedroom ceiling and the delicately painted flowers in her bathroom cabinet.

“There is Mabel’s rose garden,” Alice says, nodding to our left. It is grand, befitting the first president of Sarasota’s garden club.

Tucked away on the other side of the path and closer to the house, Alice points again. “Mabel’s secret garden. She and John are buried there.”

It is just past a tree that has grown around a statue, trapping it like an unlucky sprite. We honour an unplanned moment of silence. “Just them? Did they have any children?”

“No,” Alice smiles. “Just them.”

Mabel died in 1929 of complications from Addison’s disease and diabetes. John engaged in a short-lived marriage sometime after, but his heart wasn’t in it. It is said he never recovered from losing the beautiful Mabel; he died in 1936 at age 70.

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On the banks of Lake Champlain, the scars of floods and fires

lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-nyPLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
Lakeside Apartments was already drowning. Hurricane Irene just held it under a minute to finish the job.

The brown, concrete complex on the edge of Plattsburgh was built in 1960 and has the open, geometric elements that are a hallmark of that time. One corner points toward Lake Champlain, looking for all the world like the nose of a ship at the edge of the beach. Only it has run aground.

I don’t know what it was like in the 1960s. No one talks about its heyday, if it had one, in which perhaps families arrived in slick, metal cars full of beach umbrellas and archaic societal attitudes.

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The units were occupied by low-income, mostly short-term tenants when Lake Champlain flooded in May 2011, washing away the beach and flooding the property. Lakeside Apartments was evacuated of about 200 people who were told they’d be able to move back later that summer. But that wasn’t to happen.

First there was a fire, in the weeks following the flood, that damaged several units when a squatter is alleged to have left incense burning in a shrine.lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-ny8Then, in August, Hurricane Irene. 

The Category 3 storm tore up the Caribbean, and eastern United States, killing at least 53 along the way. She flooded Long Island and devastated the Catskills. In the Adirondacks, she caused landslides on her way to Canada, where power lines and buildings were damaged as far inland as Montreal.

And, of course, the Lakeside Apartments would never recover.

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“Right now it really is a distressed property,” Mayor James Calnon told the Press Republican last year. “We  want to get it out of distress, and we hope that will happen.”

“That” is a development project proposed when the land was sold in 2014 by Montreal businessman Collin Nieme, according to the Press Republican. If all goes well (though “goes well” is a matter of perspective), the land will be gentrified, with long-term leases and fancy hair salons.

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The Lakeside, at last, might be out of distress. For now, it is broken and smells of ash and worse things. Though police are said to drive by when they think of it, no one stopped me from wandering around the property, though I had to avert my eyes when I turned the corner to the lake side and made eye contact with a woman carrying out some delicate business in the back seat of a car.

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The not-quite ghost town of Venosta, Quebec

VENOSTA, Que.
We were inspired to spend a weekend in the municipality of Low when an opinion piece on the importance of saving Quebec’s ghost towns came across my desk. We have gone ghost-town hunting in Pennsylvania and in Texas, but searching in our own back yard had never occurred to us.

Venosta, the ancestral town of the writer, isn’t strictly a ghost town, as many homes are obviously lived in and the lush land is still farmed. Settled primarily by Irish immigrants in the 1800s, this region in the Gatineau Hills about 50 kilometres north of Ottawa is an agricultural and logging area, and so has benefited and suffered from the historic highs and lows of those industries.

We got more than we bargained for with our rented cottage in Low, and a little less than we expected in the ghost town, a collection of picturesque falling-down buildings surrounded by high grass, and fields and trees beyond.

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venosta quebec ghost town

Walking the abandoned rail bridge of North Anson

NORTH ANSON, Maine
Sometimes you have to put off spontaneity.

Like the time I rounded a corner and there was the most amazing rocky river and around the next bend was an overgrown, abandoned rail bridge.

The timing was off and there was no way we could stop, but that damn bridge wouldn’t leave my head. The next morning at our Airbnb, which we’d made a disaster of dishes and laundry, Melani did one of those things that keeps us together after so many years: She gave me a pass and told Trevor and I to go find that damn bridge.

We knew it was about 20 minutes back up the road, but we couldn’t remember exactly where. Our perspective was off, nothing looked right, and we knew for sure we’d gone too far when we came to the community hall in Anson.

We turned the car around and tried to jump-start our brains: “Remember there were those antique cars for sale? Did we pass those?”

“Oh, there’s the ‘Blind Person Ahead’ sign. I remember seeing that last night and thinking, ‘Damn, I hope he hears us coming’.”

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Then there it was. The Carrabassett River was smooth and glassy on one side of the highway bridge, but showed a completely different face when approached from the south. Fast-running water rushed over hundreds of small boulders, sounding like static and looking like oblivion, pooling in basins that were deceptively calm. And there — crossing this menacing, narrow river — were symmetrical rusty lines against the bluest sky.

We pulled off the road directly across from the mouth of the bridge. There used to be rail where I parked the truck, but it was paved over sometime in the late ’70s, when the bridge was abandoned.

Beyond the static of the river below, the town was Sunday-morning silent. We stepped onto rail, and bounced lightly on a couple of the crossties. They were dark and veined and gave slightly under our weight. There were places farther ahead where plywood was nailed over ties to cover spots where it was rotted through.

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Before this iron span was built, there was a covered rail bridge here, erected in 1888. There are marvelous pictures of it, and more modern ones, in a book by the Anson Bicentennial Committee. That bridge, not as impressive as this beast, was tough enough to withstand a tornado, if a letter to the editor in an 1890 edition of Engineering News is to be believed. Mr. Thompson referred to peculiarities in the bridge’s architecture and noted that iron plates on the structure had slipped.

“After the storm,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “the ends of each span were in place but their centers had been sprung about 18ins out of line so that the track formed a series of reverse curves while the top of the bridge roof and all was tipped so that the trusses were at least 4 ft out of plumb.” However, damage was quickly repaired and trains were running the next day.

On our clear day, we started a slow unsteady walk across. Trevor kept to the centre, close to the rail, while I walked on the outside edge because I could see thick reinforcement beams under the ties. The wood was spongy and invited caution.

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This bridge was built 109 years ago. The Somerset, Maine Central, and Pan Am railroads carried lumber, agricultural goods and people over the Carrabassett to the end of the line here at North Anson.

Locomotives that had roared across the track upon which we walked so gingerly were named things like Black Dinah, Moxie, and Bombazeen.

Just past the halfway point was a strange metal beast we have since learned is a buffer stop, meant to prevent locomotives from rolling farther down the end of the track. It wouldn’t stop more than ghost trains now, but it stood at attention, cool metal under a hot sun, unshaded at the centre of the bridge where even the most hardy of weeds haven’t ventured yet. Past that was the high bank of the Carrabassett and more rail, so overgrown we lost our footing more than once as we peered through the brush back over the bridge and ran our fingers over the rusted dates on a switch to the side of the track.

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We were steadier on our trip back, and bold enough to venture under the bridge, where we found the water wasn’t as scary as it sounded or looked from above, and where Trevor discovered a rope attached to the ties above.

“Mom. Mom mom mom. Mom.” Back when he was little, this used to drive me nuts. “Mom has one syllable. Don’t waste all that breath.” I don’t mind so much any more. “Mom mom mom. Let’s swing on it.”

I gave him that look and he, eventually, let it go, and hardly laughed at me at all when I halfway fell into the river anyway.

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The puzzling house on Beatons Bluff

BEATONS BLUFF

When I was a little girl, my Barbies’ Dreamhouse was made of shoeboxes and toilet-paper rolls held together with Scotch tape.

On the edge of Nova Scotia, our little Airbnb, which slopes toward Northumberland Strait, is a dreamhouse like that: one shoebox taped to another, added to a cereal box as soon as the Cheerios were done and the prize claimed. We spent our first day imagining how this cottage began, made up as it is of three unique little boxes, and whether it’s finished.

What’s clear is that it’s a house inside a house. The door to the kid’s room used to be an entry from outside. It still has the porch light, and there are tall narrow windows on either side. If that room and the kitchen beside it represent the 1970s, then the long dining room with painted floors, fat woodstove, and faded flyswatters are the ’80s, and the polished living room and master suite, with its right angles and cleanly caulked windows, are the 1990s.

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Once we realized it was a Barbie construct — none of the pieces being original to the other — we tried to stop figuring out how the cottage came to be (though I dreamed about it) and started thinking about it like a puzzle.

If you glance at the puzzle, laminated and framed and hanging about like a regular piece of art, you’re just fine, but it’s unnerving for a moment when you realize it’s full of cracks and curves and patterns that are hard to appreciate when you weren’t part of the assembling.

We have nothing but respect for the industriousness of the architect. We’re spending a week in their dreamhouse, surrounded by hay fields and ocean and rosebushes and wandering each shoebox and cereal box with delight and wonder. 

The door to the kids' room clearly used to be an outside entry.
The door to the kids’ room clearly used to be an outside entry.

The Bessborough Hotel and the man in the grey suit

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SASKATOON — There is a man in a grey suit who smiles freely and greets guests on the banquet level some late evenings. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, but there’s time yet.

He and I are at the Bessborough in Saskatoon, one of the last of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

The nation’s tradition of rail hotels began in Montreal, the home of Canadian Pacific Railway president William Cornelius Van Horne. The Windsor went up in 1878 and the CPR and other companies followed with the Hotel Vancouver, the Banff Springs Hotel, Quebec City’s extraordinary Château Frontenac, and other beasts of brick and stone along thousands of kilometres of rail. Fourteen hotels later, Regina saw the rise of the Hotel Saskatchewan in 1927.

It’s not like Regina didn’t deserve a grand hotel. It was a vibrant, growing city that had been built by the railway. But so was Saskatoon, and this city wanted one, too.

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The CPR went through Saskatoon, 300 kilometres north of Regina, and had since 1908. The city boasted an elegantly long and tall rail bridge with a pedestrian walkway as well as a sleek little railway station.

The earl and countess of Bessborough.Called the Hub City, Saskatoon also hosted track for Canadian National Railway and the Grand Truck Railway. All it was missing was a grand hotel, and CNR stepped in to make that happen. 

So within a year, ground was broken for the 10-storey Bavarian castle-inspired building that overlooks Saskatchewan River. Designed by Montreal architects, it integrated turrets, heraldry, gargoyles and other stonemasonry under a copper roof. Sir Vere Ponsonby, the ninth earl of Bessborough and 14th governor-general of Canada, consented to have it named in his honour.

It was 1932 when building was completed, and the Depression was hitting the Prairies hard. The doors of The Bez wouldn’t officially open for another three years.

It has aged elegantly. The gardens with their ironwork gates and heart-shaped flower gardens lure lovers and the river just beyond keeps the castle separate from the rest of the world and dampens the noise of traffic and passersby.

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Bellmen rush to open doors before a guest has the chance to reach out their chilled hands. In the wide hallways, carpets muffle the sound of dress shoes and high heels. Chambermaids stop what they’re doing to say hello and ask after one’s day.

The high-ceilinged banquet area features palatial windows with luxurious curtains, dark wood accents and chandeliers. It was once a quiet space for gentlemen to sit and sip coffee, read their newspapers and gossip, as men do.

bessborough stairsHere is where one might see the man in the grey suit. He is an older gentleman, and he is wearing a fedora.

His countenance is so still and friendly that people who meet him often don’t realize till after they’ve returned his greeting that he isn’t there at all.

No one knows who he is or when he was.

A legend that sticks is that of a hotel employee who was tasked with asking a group of guests to settle down one evening. Two men at the party did not take kindly to the admonishment and threw the employee over a railing. He fell several storeys to his death.

That tragedy is marked by a crack in the ballroom floor. And perhaps by a man in a grey suit and fedora.