House Porn, now and then

Here’s the first of three (maybe four?) posts about our recent travels to Naples, Florida to see the in-laws:

Naples PierOne morning during our trip (I think it was last Sunday), Annette and I went on a bike ride while Annette’s parents took Will to the beach by the pier in Naples. The neighborhood we rode around in was called Port Royal, which has cool street names like Gin Lane and Rum Row, lovely landscape and Banyan trees, and which has obscenely large and garish houses. This was the “front version” of the house porn tour.

A few years ago, Annette and I went on a sunset cruise that passed through the canals behind all these giant houses. I called that experience “the house porn cruise,” because, like pornography, me and my fellow passengers were disgusted by what we saw (“my God, those people have three swimming pools!”), and yet we also found it all kind of arousing, we were all a little envious and no one could take our eyes off of it.

The “full frontal” view of the tour wasn’t quite as titillating as seeing the back-end a couple years ago. True, many of the houses had over-the-top facades, most of a weird faux Italian or French Rivera style, and many had rather elaborate security camera systems. But with the landscaping and such, they were mostly on the verge of tasteful, though rather palatial.

I guess the thing that I found more striking than the display of wealth was the number of “for sale” signs. The downturn in the economy is visible here in Naples, and it seems particularly visible in the richy-rich neighborhoods. There are a lot of houses for sale and foreclosures in my neighborhood too, but it kind of seemed like there was more going on here. And I guess that makes a certain amount of sense. The kinds of people who own these houses are the kinds of people who had all their money with Lehman Brothers or AIG.

Anyway, the day after this bike ride, we made a day-trip to Sarasota and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and the things around it. Ringling was the last living brother of the Ringling Brothers, and, as far as I can tell, kind of a Charles Foster Kane/Donald Trump of his times. He amassed a huge fortune through the circus business and other operations, he and his wife collected a ton of art and other goodies from Europe, and he built for himself and his wife this faux Venetian/Italian styled mansion of a house: Cá d’ Zan, a one of a kind and eccentric design that included all kinds of balconies, a bar, tons of art, and a church organ built into the living room. (I know little about Ringling, but I think this image of him playing the organ alone in this giant house is kind of telling).

In other words, this too was house porn, 1920s style.

Surprisingly, the circus part of the museums were kind of under-played. There was one large building that had a few circus wagons, costumes, and posters, but it seemed kind of like a work in progress. The coolest part of the circus stuff—and maybe the coolest part of the whole trip to Sarasota—was the Howard Brothers Circus Model, which was this immense miniature model of a circus built over decades by Howard Tibbals. I’ve got a few pictures in the Flickr set, but they don’t really do justice to the scale and detail of this thing. And I can only wonder what it was like to be married to the guy who did that project in his basement for fifty or sixty years.

Also surprising to me was the impressiveness of the museum of art, which is really the centerpiece of the facility. We hit the art museum last and were kind of pooped by then, and that was too bad, in a way. There was a lot of very impressive old European art in there—quite a bit of Paul Reubens and “Dutch Masters” kinds of things—which the Ringlings brought back from their frequent trips to Europe.

Interestingly, Mable Ringling died in the late 20s, and, as I understand it, John Ringling had willed all of his estate and art to the state of Florida– I don’t think he had any children. Ringling, like today’s modern house porn operators, pretty much lost it all during the stock market crash, and just a few days before he would have been sold to sell his house and art, he died, thus making this all available to the public. Kinda strange, huh?

Here is a link to my Flickr set from the trip to Sarasota. More to come, I am sure.

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