3401 Casablanca Ave. St. Pete Beach, 33706

Then and Now – 1936 & 2024 – 3401 Casablanca Ave. St. Pete Beach

From a 1954 Sales Ad: “Don Ce-Sar Place: This attractive property located in one of the finest beach neighborhoods. Large corner lot. Property in excellent condition, inside and out. Four nice bedrooms, four baths, a downstairs den. Extra large living room with fireplace, large dining room, closets galore. Two car garage. Only one block from the Gulf and has beach privileges. Price $25,000”

This house, at the foot of the entrance to the Don Cesar Hotel, was built in 1936 (according to a St. Pete Times article of that same year) by Thomas J. Rowe as his residence. Thomas Rowe was the builder/owner of the Don Cesar Hotel which opened January 16, 1928.

Thomas Jasper Rowe was born on June 14, 1872, in Cambridge Massachusetts to Patrick and Catherine Rowe, Irish immigrants. Patrick was a stone cutter by profession and Catherine was at home caring for Thomas and his two older sisters, Lizzie (1866) and Annie (1868). There was another son born in 1871, who was also named Thomas, but he died before reaching his first birthday.

In 1874, Patrick Rowe died unexpectedly at age 34, leaving Catherine to raise the three children, 8, 6, and 2, by herself. Piling tragedy upon tragedy, Catherine died a year later, 1875, at age 32. The children were now left entirely alone. With no other family in America the children were sent back to Dublin, Ireland to be raised by their grandfather, also named Thomas Rowe.

The three children grew up in Dublin where they received their education. Thomas had displayed a certain level of artistic ability and began studying art in Dublin (and later in England) during his teenage years, specializing in stone sculpting. When Thomas reached his 21st birthday (1893) he decided that he would return to the States and try to make a living as a professional sculptor. His two sisters stayed in Dublin where they would later marry and raise their families. Lizzie died in 1921, at age 55, and Annie died in 1919, at age 51.

Thomas arrived in Washington DC in 1893 and began applying his art skills. In 1901, Thomas was listed in the Census as a ‘Sculptor’, and in 1904 had been hired to create a bust of Minerva which would be displayed at the new Carnegie Library in DC. However, upon completion the library rejected the bust, which led to a drawn out lawsuit in which Thomas was suing for $10,000 damages to his reputation. He did not avail in the court action.

Thomas felt it necessary to leave Washington DC and set up business elsewhere. He decided upon Norfolk, Virginia, and moved there in 1905. It was in Norfolk that Thomas met Ms. Mary Lucille Davis and the couple were married on July 31, 1906, he was 34 and she 31. Thomas and Mary never had children.

Thomas was still working hard attempting to make his way as a sculptor and did have a small success two months before his marriage when he completed a piece for St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Norfolk, which is still seen today on the exterior of their main entrance just above the doors. It is a relief of Christ knelling in the Garden of Gethsemane. This, however, is the last mention of any sculptures being created by Thomas.

It is likely that Thomas came to the realization that if he hadn’t made a success in the arts by now (1906), after being back in the States 13 years, that it likely wasn’t going to happen. It was at this time that he started speculating in real estate in Norfolk, a venture which he found suited him and at which he was very successful. By 1911, Thomas had put down his working tools and taken up real estate full time. Although his real estate business was flourishing, his health was not. He suffered from asthma and heart issues and finally he and Mary decided that they needed to find somewhere to live with a better climate.

In 1919, Thomas and Mary, packed their bags and boarded the train for St. Pete, which they had heard was the perfect place to locate for health benefits. Once they arrived Thomas wasted no time in entering the real estate business here in town. He reached out to Walter Fuller and with his help started purchasing land for development. One of these purchases was the land on Pass-a-grille (about 80 acres for $100,000) where Thomas would later build the Don Cesar Hotel (construction cost was $1,150,000) and the Don Cesar Place neighborhood (including this featured house).

Thomas’s marriage was not ideal and the couple, although never divorced, were estranged. Mary resided in the Dusenbury Hotel downtown while Thomas ultimately lived in a room at the Don Cesar.

Thomas came up with the name Don Cesar from his favorite opera, Maritana by Jules Massenet. The main character is Don Caesar de Bazan, which Thomas modified to Don Cesar. Also, all the streets in the Don Cesar Place neighborhood are names taken from the opera, including Cordova, Barcelona, Alhambra, Alfonso, Casablanca, De Bazan, Maritana, Don Jose, Cabrillo, and El Centro.

There were times during the depression when Thomas wasn’t sure that he could make his payroll, but the staff remained loyal even under financial strains. Because of this loyalty, according to a Times article, Thomas had decided to change his will to leave the Hotel to the staff. Unfortunately for them, Thomas died before signing the change. On May 2, 1940, while walking through the lobby of the Don Cesar, Thomas collapsed, suffering a heart attack, and was assisted to his room. He died on May 5, 1940, in his room at the Don Cesar, he was 67 years old.

Thomas is buried at Royal Palm Cemetery in St. Pete. His will left everything to Mary, who made a futile attempt to keep it running. WWII put an end to her efforts and the Hotel would be taken over by the US Veterans Administration as a hospital.

It was at this time that Mary’s health also failed and while vacationing in Henderson North Carolina, she became ill and was hospitalized, she was diagnosed with cancer. She remained in the hospital in Henderson for two years until she died on December 12, 1944, at age 67. Mary’s body was returned to St. Pete, and she is buried next to Thomas.

As a side note, this house would later become the longtime home (nearly 60 years) of Capt. Wilson Hubbard’s family.

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