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House hunting for a winter home in Florida
By Tom Adkinson
Published November 15, 2019

ca'dZan vvenetian gothic mansion
Ca’ dZan, a 56-room Venetian Gothic mansion, is just one of several attractions at The Ringling; image by The Ringling.

This time of year, lots of us are thinking about taking a break from winter and spending time in Florida – and maybe even splurging on a winter home. If this is the winter for you to do some house hunting, here are four winter retreats open for inspection, although they’re certainly not for sale.

The biggest of the bunch is Ca’ d’Zan, the totally over the top 56-room mansion that circus magnate John Ringling built for his beloved wife, Mable, in Sarasota. It has been called “the last of the gilded mansions” and is a symbol of the excesses of the Roaring Twenties.

John and Mable Ringling may have had humble Midwestern roots, but they went wild with Ca’ d’Zan, which means “House of John” in the dialect of their beloved Venice. It was built in the Venetian Gothic style of the palazzos around the canals of that beautiful Italian city. The initial cost was $1.5 million, but a modern restoration cost 10 times that amount.

Today, it is one element of a complex that also includes the Ringling Museum of the American Circus (which features a 44,000-piece circus model, the largest in the world), the Ringling Museum of Art (Rubens, Gainsborough, Greek and Roman antiquities and much more), an intact Italian theater from 1798, an art library, 65 acres of gardens and multiple dining options.

rubens gallery at ringling museum of art
The Rubens Gallery is a popular component of the Ringling Museum of Art; image by The Ringling.
thomas edison home fort myers florida
Thomas Edison’s home in Fort Myers attracted houseguests such as Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone; image by the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.

About 80 miles farther down Florida’s west coast are a couple of more modest abodes, the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Myers. Edison and Ford weren’t just a great inventor and a great innovator. They were pals – and neighbors.

Edison got here first (1885) and quickly invested in real estate along the Caloosahatchee River. His guesthouse accommodated folks such as Harvey Firestone, Herbert Hoover and Ford. Ford liked the neighborhood so much that he bought the house next door, a two-story Craftsman-architecture place named the Mangoes.

thomas edison moonlight garden
Fragrant night-blooming plants are the big draw at Edison’s Moonlight Garden; image by the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.

The houses are open, and 20 acres of gardens are available to roam, too. Ficus trees that Edison, Ford and Firestone planted are now giants, and there are 1,700 plants representing 400 species from six continents. The largest formal garden is the Moonlight Garden, filled with fragrant night-blooming plants.

Of special interest are the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory and the 15,000-square-foot Edison Ford Museum, which includes Edison’s 1916 Model T, a birthday gift from his next-door neighbor.

ernest hemingway home key west florida
An uncle of Ernest Hemingway’s wife bought this one-time fixer-upper for the young couple; image by Rob O’Neal.

All the way down at the tip of Florida is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West. You don’t have to be a cat lover to enjoy Hemingway’s hangout, but it doesn’t hurt if you like felines. After all, 59 polydactyl (six-toed) cats roam the house and grounds. Some of the 59 cats descended from Snow White, a gift to Hemingway from a ship’s captain.

Key West was quieter and perhaps less quirky when Hemingway first visited in 1928 (he finished “A Farewell to Arms” then), and he came to feel a sense of community here, according to Alexa Morgan, the attraction’s PR director. His wife’s uncle bought the Hemingway Home for the couple in 1931. It dated to 1851 and wasn’t in good shape, but the Hemingways saw its potential.

Today, you can view Hemingway’s typewriter in his writing studio and get a sense of how Key West and its citizens influenced him while touring the house and its extensive gardens, which are an attraction themselves. A hint for special enjoyment: Read To Have and Have Not, a novel about Key West in the Depression to add a special memory.

Trip-planning resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

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