Ninety years ago on January 10, Thomas Rowe, a developer from England, opened the doors of his new hotel, the Don Cesar, named after Don CeSar de Bazan, the hero of the opera Maritana.
Rowe long dreamed of an elegant resort built along the beach. While visiting in 1924 he bought 80 acres of Gulf to bay property for $100,000, hired architect Henry Dupont to design his “pink castle,” and his friend Carlton Beard, a contractor, to start construction. Beard was concerned about the eight story hotel shifting in the sand, so along with Rowe, they developed a concrete pad with a pyramid-type footer to minimize any effects.
They began building in 1926, but after many revisions to the original plans, Rowe ran short of funds. Pass-a-Grille industrialist Warren Webster loaned him the money to furnish the hotel and the first guest checked in that January day. An elaborate, formal opening was held on Jan. 16. Dinner was $1.30 and a room with bath on the European plan was $24 per night!
Rowe also developed the surrounding blocks east of the hotel, building duplexes, single family homes, a park, and tennis courts many in use today. This area he named Don Cesar Place with the streets names also based on Maritana.
The Don CeSar flourished through the 1930s with guests like department store owners Gimbels and Bloomingdales, Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Walter Mayo, writers Faith Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with many affluent businessmen and their wives, movie stars, entertainers and other wealthy Americans and foreigners.
But the depression took its toll on Rowe’s dream. To survive he struck a three-year deal with Yankee’s owner Jacob Ruppert to house the team during spring training. This move proved to be the Don’s salvation.
Rowe died in his beloved hotel in 1940, and in 1942 his wife sold it to the U.S. Army. The once splendid, luxury hotel served as a convalescent center for WWII pilot’s “because it was a quiet, peaceful location along the Gulf waters.” The military established itself in the surrounding community and residents gave their time visiting the veterans, planning dinners, dances and joining them to see movies in the grand ballroom.
After the war, it was used as a VA regional office, remaining so until the property was declared obso- lete in 1969. The government moved out leaving everything in disrepair. The old hotel became an eyesore headed toward demolition until a citizens’ “Save the Don” committee headed by June Hurley Young swung into action. They got the government to sell it to the City of St. Pete Beach, and they quickly sold it to William “Bill” Bowman, a hotel entrepreneur, for $460,000.
Bowman’s engineers found the structure sound as a fortress. After spending $3.5 million over 18 months, he opened the totally refurbished hotel in November 1973 with much of the original décor helping to establish that elegant look of the 1930s. In 1975 it was placed on the National Historic Register as an official historic landmark.
The towering structure has been and is a permanent marker for boaters. It can be seen for miles east and west and has its place on nautical charts. It has retained its pink color for most of its 90 year existence going from light pink to a darker hue, but its title the “Pink Palace” has become a trademark name.
The elegant resort and spa is currently owned by Host Hotels & Resorts. And Rowe’s dream is still strong as ever.
“For years, The Don CeSar has been a place for generations to gather with their families and loved ones to celebrate,” said Interim General Manager Jim Gross. “We’re thrilled to reach this milestone and look forward to continue serving the commu- nity and guests alike with our signature brand of hospitality.”
They will celebrate the 90th anniversary with a “An Iconic Celebration of History and Community, 90 Years in the Making,” a black-tie gala on Jan. 19. The soirée will feature food, drinks and entertainment exploring The Don CeSar’s rich history throughout the years. Ticket price includes an open bar and hors d’oeuvres from Executive Chef Mike Molloy. Z Street Speakeasy Band will provide the classic and contemporary hits. Tickets are $175 (plus tax and gratuity), and are available at don90thgala.eventbrite.com.