The Don Cesar Hotel – the Pink Palace

On a recent December visit to the Don Cesar Hotel and Resort, our group met with Resort Host and Certified Concierge, Ronald MacDougall. As concierge, Mr. MacDougall assures that each guest has the finest experience during their stay at the Don Cesar. In his position as concierge, he has assisted many of the VIPs that have visited the historic pink hotel on the Gulf of Mexico in St. Petersburg, Florida. Those guests have included Mariah Carry, Carole King, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Buffet, as well as many of the visiting Presidents.

Our private tour began in the main bar and lounge, which at this time of the year is beautifully decorated for the holiday season. The majestic dark wood bar, couches and large leather chairs make this the perfect place to sit back, relax and imagine yourself in another era, the early glory days of the Pink Palace.

The story of the Don Cesar Hotel or Pink Lady, as Thomas Rowe liked to call the hotel, begins at the beginning as all good stories do. It was a vision of Thomas J. Rowe to create a monument to a lost love.

This part of the story begins in London where rumor would have it that the young Thomas Rowe, while attending a university, attended the opera “Maritana” where he became infatuated with the female lead, Lucinda, a beautiful Spanish opera singer.They met each night after her performance beside a fountain in London.

Plans were made to elope. On the night that they were to leave, Lucinda did not show and Rowe was left waiting by the fountain. Her parents were made aware of the pending marriage and forced Lucinda to return home to Spain. Lucinda was reported to have died at a young age, but sent this letter to Thomas containing this passage. “Time is infinite, I wait for you by the fountain to share our timeless love,…our destiny is time. ” Well, if it didn’t happen that way, it should have.

Returning to the United States, Thomas Rowe built commercial buildings in New York. He later moved to Norfolk, Virginia, there he met Mary Lucille, the daughter of a rich landowner. Thomas married Mary and began the life of a socialite.

At the age of 47 with his health declining, Thomas Rowe elected to relocate to a more hospitable climate. Leaving his wife in Virginia, he decided on Florida and in particular St Petersburg, Florida, which was experiencing a real estate boom. Arriving with $21,000.00, Rowe began purchasing property.

Real Estate development was hot in the early 1920’s and Thomas Rowe partnered with another former Norfolk socialite and land developer, a Mr. Page. He and Page formed the Boca Ciega Land Company for the purchase of land.

Mr. Page developed the land on the north side of Johns Pass and the family still lives in Madeira Beach.

Rowe amassed a small fortune and while visiting an isolated stretch of undeveloped beach in the area known as Pass-A-Grille. Pass-A-Grille was named for the 18 century “grilleurs” who dried fish on the white beaches. This was a very remote and rugged landscape. Access from the mainland was by a wooden bridge. On these white sands beside the gentle waves of the Gulf of Mexico, Thomas Rowe envisioned his dream resort. Against the advice of many in his circle, Thomas Rowe purchased 80 acres on these shores. Soon a residential subdivision was built and each street was named for a character from the opera Maritana.

In 1926 construction began on his dream resort. Rowe hired architect Henry DuPont to design the project. One obstacle that had to be overcome was the massive structure would be sitting on sand. A floating foundation was devised and its success is reflected in the fact that the foundation has not shifted in the past 82 years.

Another obstacle was transporting construction material. The bridge as earlier mentioned was older and manned by an older bridge keeper who was not always reliable, opening the bridge when he was in the mood. Construction material was placed on a barge and brought to the site bypassing the bridge.

A railroad strike that year drove up costs of construction and after finishing the exterior and interior of the resort, Thomas Rowe ran out of money to furnish the hotel. A backer was needed to save the venture. H.P. Churchill would provide the money, but he had a stipulation. He would name the manager. It was agreed and the Don Cesar had its Grand Opening in 1927, with the some of the wealthiest people in America attending.

It was lavish and plush in the Grand Lobby. Thomas Rowe had constructed a replica of the fountain similar to the one where he,as a student, would rendezvous with the beautiful Lucinda. The fountain would be the first thing that guests would see after climbing the entry stairway into the lobby and was the center- piece of the resort. Modeled after the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach, the Don Cesar Resort was a vision, standing on the sands of Pass-A-Grille. Thomas Rowe liked to call the hotel the Pink Lady.

The main entrance into the resort was on Gulf Blvd. with two lion statues and a sign stating “Come All Ye Who Seek Health and Rest. For Here They Are Abundant.” The original staircase is hidden, but is located where the Ice Cream Shop is now situated on the first floor.

As luck would have it, the timing could not have been worse; the economy entered what became known as the Great Depression. Fortunately for the hotel, an agreement with the New York Yankees baseball team was secured for housing the players during spring training which helped the resort stay solvent.

Thomas Rowe moved into one of the two penthouses in the Don Cesar. Everyday Rowe would station himself in a chair in the lobby, talking with visitors and staff and taking stock of the guests. Guests who did not meet a certain standard of dress or manners and speech were asked to leave the hotel. It was not an era of political correctness.

Then in 1940, Thomas Rowe collapsed in the lobby. He refused to be taken to the hospital, so he was moved into adjoining rooms 101 and 102. There he stayed until his death. Rowe attempted to get a will witnessed by his attended nurses, but they refused. This reported Will would have left the Pink Lady in the hands of the staff. As it happened, Thomas Rowe’s wife, Mary, gained control of the Don Cesar. The resort fell on hard times. Then in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a vacation at the beach was not as attractive. People became afraid of attack from the ocean and soon the guests stopped arriving. The U.S. government purchased the Don Cesar and converted the resort for use as a convalescent center for members of the US Army Air Corp. suffering from shell shock and injuries from the war.

One casualty of the transfer of ownership was the fountain in the main lobby. The manager of the converted building was concerned that one of the visitors would trip over the fountain and ordered it removed.

Later the Don Cesar was used for government offices and was finally left abandoned and fell into disrepair. A movement began to have the resort leveled and removed. A counter movement lead by local resident and activist June Hardy Young began to restore the Don Cesar. The later movement was successful and a new owner for the resort was located. William Bowman purchased the resort and in 1973, the resort was reopened. During the remodeling, a replica of the original fountain was placed on the fifth floor.

Our tour included the penthouses, which were vacant at the time of our visit, and the Presidential Suite where every President has stayed since 1940. The penthouses have a spectacular view of St. Petersburg, the gulf beaches and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Of course if you decide to stay in one these penthouses, it will set you back around $3500.00 a night.

The Don Cesar is a beautiful resort with two swimming pools, exercise room and a new spa. Opened just recently, the 11,000 sq ft Spa Oceana is a state of the art spa. Guests can have a massage, get in the whirlpool and sauna, and then have a lunch on the roof of the spa building overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

If you go, ask the reservationist if there are any specials. On our visit, we received a preseason rate and were very happy with our stay.

The resort is co-owned and operated by the Loews Hotels chain.