The Ringling Brothers circus empire began in 1882, when Albrecht Ringling and four of his brothers organized the Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company. They began as a vaudeville act, with Charles playing violin, Alfred performing on the organ and cornet, Al juggling, and John clogging and singing humorous “Dutch” songs. Two years later, they formed the circus. Soon the brothers required fourteen railway cars to transport their equipment and large animals. In 1907, the Ringlings purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus, realizing their claim to be the Greatest Show on Earth.
As a member of the circus’s “royal family,” Ringling built a house fit for a king. Isenberg, a builder, oversaw construction, but the architect’s name has been lost. The sense of mass, weight, and volume conveyed by the proportions of the building, the play of voids and solids, the expressive use of quarry-faced stone laid in an uncoursed pattern, and the use of color rather than ornament to enrich the design are noteworthy. The two-and-a-half-story house is constructed of rock-faced brownstone quarried at Port Wing on Lake Superior and trimmed with smooth-faced brownstone. Hipped, gabled, and pyramidal roofs, clad with green slate and accentuated by gabled and curvilinear parapets, shelter the house’s irregular massing. A squat corner tower rises beside the gabled entrance portal. Polished granite columns support the hipped roof of a veranda as it wraps around the tower. Stained art glass fills the oriel window above the porte-cochere, as well as the upper panes of several other windows. The brownstone wing to the west, constructed of stone salvaged from the original carriage house, was added by the Elks Club in 1948.
Inside, each room on the ground floor is decorated in a different style. The reception room off the oak-finished front hall is ornamented in a lavish Louis XV style, with white-enameled woodwork, silk-covered paneling, mahogany trim, and a Mexican-marble fireplace. The billiard room has a beamed ceiling and a panoramic landscape painted above oak paneling. Across from this chamber is a Gothic-style dining room.