Leave it to one of America’s richest men to trot baby elephants around the house while entertaining guests (or so rumor has it; why else would you need uniquely reinforced floors?). That would be Charles Ringling, co-founder of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, back in the teens and twenties. The site of this alleged showmanship was his new Evanston mansion, with dining and living room floors reinforced by two feet of cement. Designed in 1913 by Ringling’s go-to architect Alfred C. Clas (who also designed his famed pink marble mansion in Sarasota, Florida), the brick Georgian, an Evanston historic landmark, is on the market for the first time since 1996.
The 17-room home has had just six owners in a century, two of them Ringlings (Charles’s son John took the helm after his father’s 1926 death), and two priesthoods. For decades the property was a clergy house, with priests taking the main house and nuns the coach house. When Margaret and Joe Flanagan took over in 1996, relics of this cloistered era were evident in bits of an intercom system, a locker room with shower stalls taking up part of the attic, and an uncommonly communal layout.
Once the Flanagan’s kids were past peewee football age, the locker room setup had to go. In its place they built a spacious bathroom to go with two attic bedrooms, and an open playroom was made a decadent billiards room and cigar lounge with a wet bar. That transformation happened in 2007. Several years earlier, they rebuilt the kitchen and breakfast room and touched up the high-ceilinged family room, affectionately referred to as the “chapel” for its lapsed religious applications. Ringling’s huge safe sits here; Margaret uses it to protect rolls of her better wallpaper. “We moved the safe a couple of times,” she said. “Trust me, you don’t want to bother.”
Fortunately no one ruined the home’s classic finishes through the years (landmark status doesn’t protect interiors), and the Flanagans were able to focus on preservation. To this end the gallery, living room, dining room, and library display the most authenticity. Quartersawn oak and beamed ceilings fill the gallery and dining room; the living room and library boast plaster ceilings (that had to recover from water damage) and wood-burning fireplaces; and there are ample built-ins for books and china. The main level’s windows are also original to the house. Before galloping up the triumphant staircase—a major temptation—notice the curtained vestibule seating and powder room off to one side, the only square footage given a circus theme.
Flanking the dramatic breadth of hall at the top of the stairs are five bedrooms. The Flanagans created a master suite by knocking through a wall between two bedrooms and installing French doors; the result is bedroom meets sitting room with his and hers bathrooms. “We figured seven bedrooms was enough for anyone,” said Margaret.
The home occupies a prominent corner lot in the Lakeshore Historic District with large front and back yards newly landscaped in the last year. A stately coach house has parking for three cars and a decently sized unit with three small bedrooms. The space has had one loyal renter for several years—the extra income never hurts.
Only one of the Flanagan’s five children hasn’t flown the coop, which calls for a more proportionate house. “We’re staying in Evanston and the only way I could convince my husband to move was to buy on the waterfront.” They already have, and will build a new home beside their private beach.
Price Points: This is Evanston’s third-priciest listing, and three of the five priciest are on the same two blocks of Forest Avenue. It has been 20 months since anything in town sold for more than $3 million, but the precedent is there. The Ringling connection can’t hurt, either. Listing agent Annie Flanagan brought the home to market Monday after two weeks as a restricted pocket listing. A broker’s open had some 100 agents passing through.
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