The Don Ce-Sar: A Castle Made of Sand Pt. 1

Part II in a series: Grand Hotels of St. Pete

Author’s note: The mid 1920s were the Golden Age for St. Pete hotels. And rightly so; the roaring 20s were ushered in after the austere and difficult days of World War I. Attitudes on life had changed with a new focus on fun and excess. Exotic was in. Architecture of Spain, Arabia, and North Africa were the gold standard. Flappers, jazz, and champagne were the rage. Cars were prevalent, and new roads were being built. Florida was directly in the crosshairs for east-of-the-Mississippi fun seekers as a newly accessible subtropical paradise and playground was being carved and filled from swamp and scrub. St. Pete was determined to cash in on the shift from agrarian and fishing economy to one where money came much more easily: catering to tourists who were ready to let loose. The city changed suddenly and dramatically in the first part of the decade, and just before the unforeseen crash of 1926 hotels modeled after palaces were being erected at a breakneck pace. This is a series of stories about those hotels.

100% Read This Warning

Ok – Before you read this, a warning. There are a lot of stories about the Don Ce-Sar that are as romantic and timeless as the hotel itself. As a historian I’d hoped every legend was true – they are where I started! But the reality of research findings crept in, and I’ve discovered that there are many mistellings and myths about the Pink Palace. So I’m going to talk about the legend, but the truth in history is not always as rosy as the tales. If you aren’t ready for that, click away!

Already read this one? Ready for Part 2? Check it out here.

To Understand the Hotel, Understand the Man

The guy that built the iconic hotel that opened in 1928 was named Thomas Rowe. His life story is interesting, and his myriad experiences clearly influenced his vision for the Don Ce-Sar.

Rowe was born in Massachusetts in 1879, but he became orphaned at age five. He was adopted by an uncle (some say grandfather) in Ireland where he was raised. He went on to university in London, studying there in the late 1890s. After finishing his schooling, Rowe opted to return to the United States in 1900 where he operated a relatively successful real estate business in Norfolk, VA. Rowe was married there, but he and his wife Mary had a strained relationship and were never happy together nor did they have children. They were separated for some time even before Rowe came to St. Pete, although they remained married. Rowe was also in generally poor health; he suffered from asthma and what doctors described as a weak heart.

Rowe had personal challenges but was successful in business.

Moves to St. Pete

At the encouragement of his physician he arrived in St. Pete in 1919 to help with his medical issues. At the time, the Pinellas Peninsula was considered one of the most healthy spots in the US; many others in the history of St. Pete had done the same. Walter Fuller, notorious St. Pete developer and associate of Rowe’s, noted later in a St. Pete Times article: “He came to St. Pete in 1919 with $21,000 and broken health.

Rowe’s wife Mary didn’t follow for two years but eventually moved to St. Pete as well, although she maintained her residence at the Dusenbury Hotel in downtown St. Pete. Despite his personal challenges, Rowe worked hard and became successful which allowed him to advance his vision for the Don Ce-Sar.

This Wasn’t His First Rowe-deo

Rowe didn’t sit around for five years before embarking on the development of the Don in 1925. He sold real estate in St. Pete and was also a land developer. He ran a solid business and amassed tremendous wealth. By the time he decided to build the grand hotel, his net worth had gone from $21,000 in 1919 to just over $1 million in 1925 due to those successful real estate transactions and developments in greater St. Pete. He had relationships with other developers and did business with people like Perry Snell and Walter Fuller. In fact, Snell owned the 80 acres that Rowe purchased on “Pass-a-Grille Island” when he decided to build the Don Ce-Sar. The purchase disappointed his associate and friend Walter Fuller, however, who thought his friend was making a huge mistake. Fuller told Rowe building a hotel at Pass-a-Grille was a terrible idea and refused to represent Rowe in the purchase of the land. Fuller said later “I told him it would kill him and it did.” Fuller was not known for his tact.

Rowe was a good person and his motives considered others as well as his financial interests. (SPT, 1925)

Rowe, however, was committed to the idea of building the hotel on the barrier island and saw things differently that Walter Fuller. Beyond his desire to be a successful businessman, Rowe was at heart ethical and cared very much for his employees, customers, and people that he came in contact with. His previous success in St. Pete was also a factor. Without his prior success in the town he would have not had the financial ability to undertake the grand vision that struck him. Rowe said that his desire was to give back to St. Pete, but also benefit others who came as visitors. So Rowe purchased the 80 acres, and like many developers, set aside space for the hotel while selling lots and homes in the development that would come to be known as Don Ce-Sar Place. This was a common business practice and the idea was to create a community around a resort-like hotel, with the lots and homes helping to finance the hotel itself. The neighborhood and hotel still exist, with many of the streets around the hotel still bearing the original names given by Rowe. One thing needs to be said as well about his timing — Rowe stated that he timed the purchase of the land and the development of the hotel to

coincide with the opening of the first free causeway to the Gulf Beaches. A rickety wooden toll bridge, the McAdoo Bridge, existed, but was insufficient. However, Pinellas County at the time had passed bond issues to substantially improve the roads and build concrete bridges to the Gulf beaches. One was the original Corey Avenue Bridge, at the time called the Boca Ciega Bridge, which opened in the mid 20s. It ran between what we now call South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach, near the Don. The current Corey Causeway was built next to that original concrete span.

The Original Design of the Don Ce-Sar

Ok, so here is a little bit of a shocker for those of you who may be under the assumption that the hotel was a completely original one-off from the mind of Thomas Rowe. Rowe hired an architect named Henry DuPont of Indianapolis (but who had also relocated to St. Pete) to help design the hotel. DuPont clearly had friends and associates in the business outside his firm. I assert that one of those associates, based on my research, was a contemporary who DuPont studied with in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. His name was Whitney Warren. Warren founded a very successful New York architectural firm that designed an iconic hotel on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu called the Royal Hawaiian, which opened a year before the Don. It was based on the same plan, with changes to suit Rowe, that the Don was founded. Take a look at the two pictures below, and you may be… surprised. The Royal Hawaiian, like the Don, still exists today. It is (and always was) painted pink and is called “The Pink Palace of the Pacific.” Both hotels have received additions and updates that may make them seem less similar today, but originally they were clearly related.

Not the Don: Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu
The Don Ce-Sar as originally built

Naming of the Don Ce-Sar: Tragically Untragic

In Rowe’s own words. TBT, May 1926.

The simple truth is that Rowe liked an opera called Maritana, which he said somewhat notably that he saw in Albany, NY. Why notably? Many accounts you read here and there say he first saw the opera in London… or in Norfolk… and one misguided soul said Rowe saw it at the opening of the La Plaza Theater in downtown St. Pete (it actually opened with Rigoletto, I checked that too). All of these accounts are factually incorrect – in the snippet here, Rowe says where he saw the opera. He used the names of the characters for the hotel and streets around it; Don CeSar was the main character of the opera and Rowe admired him. That much we know is 100% true. But there is a much more colorful and heart-wrenching story that was developed much later. It is a romantic and tragic tale of love lost which has persisted since the mid 2000s and has turned into legend. I have recounted it below, but friends, this is fiction.

To My Love Don Ce-Sar, We Will Meet Again.

“Thomas Rowe studied in London, England in his youth. During that time, in the late 1800s, he became a lover of opera. During one of the operas he attended, a performance called ‘Maritana,’ he became enamored with the star, a beautiful Spanish woman named Lucinda. He found his way backstage, and the two soon fell deeply in love. But Lucinda was from an aristocratic family that would never allow the two to have a relationship. The two would meet secretly in London in a quiet courtyard where they acted out the roles from the play and fell in love. Rowe became Don Ce-Sar and Lucinda was Maritana. Love letters sent to one another were signed in these nom de plumes.

The two made plans to elope and steal away in the night after the opera’s run had ended. But servants of the young aristocrat found letters sent between the two, and notified her parents. On the night of the last performance, Lucinda’s parents were waiting, aware of their plan, and immediately forced her back to Spain. Rowe departed for America, heartbroken.

Eventually, a letter came to Rowe. It was an obituary for his beloved Lucinda, and along with it a note that Lucinda had forced her family to deliver for her to Rowe that was written on her deathbed. It said:

‘We found each other before, and we shall do so again. This life is intermediate. I leave it without regret and travel to a place where the swing of the pendulum does not bring pain. Time is infinite. I will wait for you by our fountain … to share our timeless love, our destiny is time. Forever, Maritana.’

Is this Lucinda waiting for Thomas? No. But it kinda seems like it could be.

So where did this tale of love lost and a castle made to honor lovely Lucinda come from? This story has only been around for perhaps a couple dozen years, and is unfortunately little more than a stroke of marketing genius, whether on the part of the Don’s marketers, or perhaps some folks doing ghost tours there. I dug into this story, and before the tale started showing up around 2008, there was never a mention of this story at all. And finally, after almost exhausting my own patience, I finally found this admittedly major bummer that confirmed the suspicions:

Lane DeGregory, the author of a March 2008 Tampa Bay Times article titled “Love’s Fate is Sealed,” said that she asked the concierges at the Don CeSar where they got the story they were relating to guests at the hotel. They said they got it from the hotel’s marketing department, who, upon being questioned, said they got it from the book, “Ghostly Encounters: True Stories of America’s Inns and Hotels,” by Frances Kermeen, who replied to DeGregory’s email that she got it from her PR contact at the hotel.

Could the opera Maritana have had a circular firing squad as well? That would be the true similarity.

My, my. The stuff legends are made of. TBT, May 2008.

My Heart Will Go On

Regardless of this fact finding, the story has persisted, and in fact grown. Today, the unwieldy and growing story insists that there was a grand fountain in the original lobby, a replica of the one where Rowe and his love would meet; a huge exact copy built in painstaking detail. I found this very odd, because I found a lot of information about the hotel and its construction. Not a single word about a lobby fountain, nor any newspaper article that mentions a lobby fountain in 100 years of articles. But I did find the tidbit we see here in an article from 2008. A small fountain on the 5th floor of the oft-renovated hotel… a supposed “replica” of one outside the Royal Opera House in London. Sorry guys, I did a Royal Opera house drive-by on Google. Even that fountain doesn’t seem to exist.

Unfortunately, and I am truly sad to report, it seems that there was never a Lucinda except in the imagination of some creative writers. The small fifth floor fountain that was probably installed in the 70s has somehow magically morphed into the centerpiece of a grand lobby built to remind the forlorn Rowe of his true love. Some now say that even a replica of the whole courtyard was built around it and Rowe would spend his days there pining for his Maritana. Another couple years and we may learn its water bubbled from the original Fountain of Youth (you read it here first!). Just kidding. Friends, this is what some might refer to as “fake news.”

Get On With It Mr. Wordy McWordface!

Even more info for you construction nerds. In short: a lot of stuff.

Ok, sorry. Let’s talk concrete facts. Literally. The hotel was constructed of mainly local materials, and it required a lot of them. The concrete bridge across Boca Ciega Bay wasn’t finished yet, and that created some interesting logistical problems because the old wooden McAdoo bridge was unable to handle heavy trucks. Ultimately, construction materials like the blocks that built the hotel and the stucco that covered them were made on site. The supplies, including the raw sand and lime were brought on barges, mainly from Tampa and unloaded on the beach. But let’s look at some interesting numbers that I bet you didn’t know about how much of everything went into the construction.

The hotel had some notable statistics that may have otherwise been lost to time, and these stats are as-built:

10 stories, with 247,000 square feet; 312 guest rooms; the original 5th floor dining room could seat 1,100; a large ballroom with mezzanine that was 5,000 square feet (still intact!); 1,500 windows, rooftop gardens on floors 5,6,8, 9 and 10; a small theater off the lobby for screening movies and live performances; a huge lobby with a grand staircase from the ground-level entrance to the second floor.

Beard’s own words about the construction difficulties.

A Shifting Design and Big Changes

What we see today was not the original planned design of the hotel; let’s call the finished product a story of epic scope creep. Carlton Beard, who was the general contractor and who oversaw all the construction of the hotel was interviewed some years later and discussed the changes to the original plan that turned what was to be a more modest structure into something truly spectacular. And interestingly, it might have all been because of a staircase.

Originally, the plan was to have guests enter on the ground level and walk up a grand stairwell to the lobby which would also house the immense dining room. But the stairwell wasn’t communicated properly, and Rowe demanded changes to build it as he envisioned – it was an absolute requirement. This caused a huge problem, because the stairwell made the dining hall unworkable. To solve the problem, the dining and kitchen space were moved to the 5th floor, but that took away planned guest rooms. In what must certainly have been a case of “Oh, what the heck” Rowe decided to go large. And go large he did. He nearly doubled the size of the hotel with the mother of all change orders, demanding new wings, more floors, and the ultimate in grandeur. Of all things that are unfortunately gone today, that grand staircase was replaced in later renovations and not a single picture of it seems to exist.

Finally… Cash All Spent, So Opening Night!

The cost of the hotel doubled along with its size. Rowe spent everything he had in finishing the hotel and ended up having to call in a favor and go further into debt to furnish the hotel on credit from a North Carolina friend and industrialist Warren Webster. But the moment it was done, the hotel opened – January 15, 1928. Interestingly, the Don was delayed in opening by a week, but a guest showed up a few days early on the 10th, when it was supposed to have opened. The reservation was honored and the guests, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Wiles were the first to have signed the guest book. They were also very pleased to be there on opening night, already checked in, when they saw the traffic out their window.

A week’s worth of festivities were planned – dinners, dancing, performances and more. The opening was attended by people from far and wide. Events were planned for each day, and the opening of the hotel was a jam-packed celebration. At only $2.50 a plate for the opening night gala, it was also a bona fide bargain!

Ad in the St. Pete Times from the opening week of the Don Ce-Sar.

With much fanfare and advertising, the hotel was ready to go. Interestingly, however, the interior of the hotel is never shown in photos throughout the 20s. As a historian, I think that is odd; everything pictured is always one of a few views of the outside of the hotel. And it’s grand. But did the cost overruns mean the interior wasn’t as decadent as hoped? I’m not sure, just a guess.

The original inscription, removed by the Defense Dept in the 40s read: “Come All Ye Who Seek Health and Rest, For Here They Are Abundant.” The sign is lost.
Today, the original entrance is a nearly unrecognizable remnant of Rowe’s vision. The plaque has never been replaced, and the grand window is gone due to the walkway above. C’mon guys, show some love and bare minimum replace the plaque.

One other notable item from the hotel was its entrance. The grand portico had guests enter on the ground floor and then walk up the staircase to the lobby. Today, a walkway from the parking area takes guests directly into the 2nd floor lobby. Relegated to near obscurity, this original portico still exists, sad and neglected, on the street level. The building of the upper level walkway has ruined it permanently.

The Most Original Thing

Let’s party like it’s 1928!

Here is a relatively recent photo of the Grand Ballroom. I was recently invited (yesterday!) to tour the hotel, and from what I can tell, this is likely the most unaltered space that remains. The description of the ballroom matches that from the 1920s, with mezzanine and wooden dance floor. Rowe preferred wood be used for the floors as he felt it was more comfortable for guests to walk and dance on.

The Crash, the Pain, the Tragedy

If you’ve read any of my other lengthy and most wordy articles, you know that the land boom in Florida ended in 1926. Many grand hotels had just opened in St. Pete, and instead of being packed with tourists were empty. The Don was no exception; the hotel saw its reservations evaporate. Rowe’s Don Ce-Sar Place was in trouble as well since lots weren’t selling. Things were bleak. However, Rowe was a man of excellent character despite his ill health. Rather than give up, he took over management of the hotel personally and moved into a suite on the fifth floor. He hustled and did his best, dropping the rates for a room plus board to a paltry $8 per day. The hotel limped along, bleeding cash even as the stock market crashed in 1929. Then, with a stroke of luck and genius, Rowe made a deal in 1931 that saved the hotel for a time – the New York Yankees signed a three-year Spring training deal to house the players. Along with the press and others following the team booking rooms as well, the hotel stayed afloat through the depression of the 30s, continuing to attract visitors due to the fame the deal had brought. But then the big whammy… World War II.

In 1940, Rowe suffered a heart attack in the hotel lobby. Was this hotel going to kill him? Sadly, it was. The Great Depression, and then outbreak of the war saw even more difficulties for the hotel. Rowe suffered a heart attack on a Thursday, the 2nd of May, while sitting in the lobby of the hotel. Rowe didn’t die immediately and was moved to his room on the 5th floor, refusing to go to the hospital. He died at the hotel three days later on Sunday the 5th.

The exact circumstances of his passing were offered as part of a eulogy given by his long-time friend and fellow developer Fred Aulsbrook who appears to have been with Rowe when he died. This is such a powerful summation of Rowe’s character that without doubt it needs to be recorded here and not lost to the passing of time.

With Rowe’s Passing More Problems, and More Half Truths That Persist

Rowe and his wife Mary were estranged, as noted way back up there somewhere. She didn’t take care of him even throughout his worsening illness over time. Instead a hotel employee, “Mrs. Jones,” became Rowe’s caretaker and confidant for the last years of his life, also living at the hotel a few door down from his room. She provided him round the clock care.

Rowe stated to numerous people that due to his financial difficulties he was unable to properly compensate Mrs. Jones for her few years of service and wanted to put her in his will. Rowe also knew that one third would need to go to his estranged wife. Finally, he indicated that perhaps the final third was to go to his long time attorney, Mr. Askew.

In short, the updated will was never properly executed, although it was no secret. Mrs. Jones brought a case against Rowe’s estate in 1941, claiming she was owed a third. The case was well documented, but without an executed will his wife Mary inherited the estate in total.

This is interesting, because if you tour the Don or read its sunny tales, you will find that it is stated that “Rowe wanted to leave the hotel to his staff.” This is true only to the extent that the staff included only one specific employee, Mrs. Jones. Details below from the 1941 TBT article about the case.

Government Takeover

Notice how it’s all dudes? Soldiers restoring their mental health.

After Rowe’s passing, his wife inherited the hotel but had no business trying to run it. The economic circumstances were extremely difficult in the midst of the depression, and Mary Rowe had no experience running a hotel. It failed in 1941 as America entered the war. Shortly thereafter the Department of Defense condemned the structure to gain control, then for a short time it became a military hospital. However, that was unworkable and most of the Don’s wartime use was shifted to a convalescent and psychiatric care center for Air Force soldiers who suffered from battle fatigue and similar problems. In this way, the hotel was more like a hotel for these recovering vets than a hospital. In fact, many images from the 40s look like happy vacationers, in fact these are recovering soldiers.

After the War, More Unsteady Times

Following the war, the Don went through a bit of an identity crisis and it was often unclear what would happen to the structure. It closed as a recovery center in 1945, vacated by the Air Force. It was then opened as a VA regional office, but it was never seen as sufficient. The building lacked air conditioning, and only about 1/3 was considered usable by the VA. However, despite the lack of clarity the VA remained until about 1966. The hotel was then oft talked about, but then mostly forgotten for a time. The cost to turn it back into a hotel was seen as excessive – in large part because of refitting to include air conditioning. Rowe was from the time when you you were certain that Gulf breezes were all you needed. However jumping forward, this huge expense and difficulty to install, along with the general lack of upkeep from the 40s through the 60s meant significant restoration and upgrades would be required. So the Don sat… for several years until a committed Pass-a-Grille resident June Hurley launched an effort, successfully, to find a buyer for the Don. She and the committee attracted the attention of Bill Bowman, a hotelier who owned hotels both locally and elsewhere in the US. Bowman received the deed and keys to the Don in 1972, and he reopened the hotel after extensive renovations in 1973. Interestingly, it was at this time, and accidentally, that the name of the Don Ce-Sar had the hyphen removed. Bowman said it was an oversight when refiling the paperwork but it stuck. So now, it is the Don CeSar, which is actually the way it was spelled in the opera. It is unclear why Rowe put the hyphen in originally. I spell it both ways, usually with the hyphen if I am referencing the hotel before the 70s.

Not This Again

Annnndddd…. History repeats itself.

The happy purchase and restoration of the Don complete, the unfortunate buyer, Bill Bowman, promptly went bankrupt after finishing the restoration. The mid 70s were another tough time, and Bowman had spared no expense in the renovation – $6 million in 1970s dollars. He kept a stiff upper lip though, and was good-natured about the fact that he lost the hotel on his birthday in 1975. He also seemed rather familiar with the cost of mistresses. Well, it was the 70s.

Anyway, after Bowman lost the hotel, it was sold on numerous occasions to corporate interests. Renovated repeatedly and with several additions – the Spa building, clock tower, bridge from the parking area – the Don is modern in many ways. Happily, even through these updates the majority of the outside of the structure is as-built in the late 20s. Now modern, popular, and busy, perhaps the best days of the Don are ahead. It certainly and finally has its footing now, and the course seems clear. Sadly for Thomas Rowe it took decades to cement the hotel’s future, but perhaps he knows. The castle that seemed to have been made of sand, neglected and nearly demolished, has finally had its renaissance and become a symbol of the past, present, and future of St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille and the broader region. The castle is now our crowning achievement and symbol of pride for us all.

Ready for Part 2? Check it out here.

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