March 1, 2012

In Mrs. Ringling's Reflection

Florida residents plan to unearth and restore the Mable Ringling Memorial Fountain and Reflecting Pool in Sarasota

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

Mable Ringling was no showman. Unlike her circus magnate husband, John, she made her mark through philanthropy and community service. So when Mable died in 1929, it was only fitting that Sarasota, Fla., the community she called home, would honor her legacy.

In 1936, the Sarasota Federation of Garden Circles erected a fountain and reflecting pool in her memory, surrounding the memorial in Luke Wood Park with plantings and finishing it with decorative stone lions and sandstone statues donated by John Ringling.

But the tribute was short-lived: Funding to keep the fountain operating dried up as the country entered World War II in the early 1940s, and the Mable Ringling Memorial Fountain and Reflecting Pool was drained, filled, and forgotten. All that remained was a few brick steps and a mound of dirt

More than 60 years later, members of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation now plan to bring the fountain back to life with a $112,000 restoration. “Because it’s been closed for so long, you say, ‘Do you know where the Mable Ringling Fountain is?’ and everybody says, ‘No,’” explains Joyce Waterbury, treasurer of the alliance’s fountain committee. “But then you describe where it is and everybody says, ‘Oh, yes! It was so wonderful! It was a meeting place,’ and that’s what we hope it will be again.”

With the approval of the Sarasota City Commission in place, work on the project can start after the necessary funds have been secured; alliance members expect that fundraising will take about a year. Soil, roots, and weeds will be excavated from the interior of the reflecting pool, an original pumping mechanism will be replaced and brought up to code, existing brick steps will be repaired wherever possible, and two original stone lions, now located in another city park, will be brought back.

A long-term agreement with the community of St. Armands Key will keep the original central sandstone statue on display there, but a replica will be cast at Florida State University and installed at the memorial. Though the fountain is in a city park, restoration won’t be funded by taxpayer dollars. Instead, fountain committee member Larry Kelleher says, the project will rely upon donations, grants, and in-kind contributions.

“A lot of those organizations that helped [fund the fountain] originally are still here,” Kelleher says. “So we’re going to be approaching them, as well, to see if they might be interested in helping us again.”

In addition to reviving a popular civic space, fountain committee members hope to remind residents of Mable Ringling’s philanthropic legacy: “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to do

something for her, because she’s always kind of forgotten in the shuffle,” says Ron McCarty, curator of Ca’d’Zan, the mansion at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and a member of the fountain committee. “I hope [this] will bring attention to not only her art collection and beautiful home, but also to her heart and what she actually did for our community.”

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