The Princess and the Castle

This article was written by Pinellas Point historian Gerry Lembke and St Pete Historian Matthew Bane in partnership.

One of the most impressive historic homes in Pinellas Point is known as the Argenteau Castle, located at 2199 Serpentine Circle. But perhaps more – much more – interesting is the person that built it – a true to life member of Belgian Royalty who fled Europe in 1905. So let’s discuss both – first the royal background, amazing, sad, and quirky life tale, and then of course discuss the house!

Officially our Belgian Princess, born in the 1870s, was titled “Princesse de Montglyon Argenteau,” in France and “Comtesse de Mercy Argenteau,” in Belgium, or if you would like a real mouthful, her full birth name was “Rosalie Françoise Adélaïde Caroline Thérèse Eugénie Marie de Mercy-Argenteau.” But many who knew her called her Rose, her shortened first given name. Raised in the lap of luxury, the toast of Europe was often referred to as “The Gold Rose of Paris” in the late 1800s. She lived the luxurious yet socially stressful life of royalty in Europe like one might only see on a period-set piece today. What we know of her life, and how she decided to build a “castle” at Pinellas Point, is every bit as dramatic and eccentric as anything you might catch on Downton Abbey.

So bear with us here – the back story is spicy and interesting, and ends in St. Pete. It’s nuts!

Struggles in Court and Courtship

Chateau Argenteau in Belgium

Rose was born in a Belgian Castle, the very first Argenteau Castle – whose namesake she would build years later in St. Pete. As a bonafide member of society, She grew up surrounded by governesses, servants and the trappings of royal life. But Rose’s early years also came with coldness and drama often associated with such a lifestyle. Her parents were connected and politically active in European affairs, leaving little time for Rose. How the lack of attention may have affected her later life is worth considering as you read this tale, but the lonely little girl was undoubtedly catered to and wealthy beyond measure.

From the St. Petersburg Times way back in 1926, regarding her life retrospectively, we learn of the difficulty of her childhood and the coldness of her own mother.

But the little girl ‘who should have been a boy’ never felt the mother’s love, the companionship of the father, or the happy childhood environment – every child’s heritage. The stately, beautiful mother was a busy lady. True, she took time to dash into the nursery and place a motherly kiss upon the wondering little girl’s cheek. But the grand lady of the castle had little time to pass with her daughter. She was busy with her round of activities which were necessary to maintain her coveted position – a favorite, a leader.”

Rose as a young woman

As Rose grew into a young woman, she entered into her own royal life at court, and became bitter rivals with her own mother. The two worked in separate social circles to accumulate and collect the same favors one collects in court – power, gowns, and hearts. While their social circles may have been generationally different, the socialites sought to advance themselves at arm’s length in the same political space.

Interestingly and something quite peculiar – In the case of the Rose, she also had an odd over-fondness for dogs – not two or three, buts scores of dogs that she cared for in fine fashion. Maybe replacing the affection not shown in her upbringing brought about the curious passion, it seems logical. But more on that in a moment!

Grown into a young woman, Rose was engaged to His Royal Highness William Prince of Orange, direct heir to the Dutch throne. They lived a lavish Parisian life together during a courtship that was interesting to research and seemed to contain many secrets. The engagement on the surface went as you would expect: “There are gay balls and lovely gowns, suitors, jewels, flowers, bright lights and gay nights.” But it seemed that perhaps William had a number of… alternate interests, liaisons and peculiarities of his own that competed with Rose’s attention. Maybe this is just the way it was in royal life, but the glitz and glam of the Parisian nights quickly caught up with William.

Tragedy and Unraveling

Rose and her fiancee William didn’t make it to the altar. He died making what seem to be some questionable life choices. From Wikipedia –

The hedonist’s nickname ‘Prince Lemon’ became popular among the regulars in the recently created boulevards and the Parisian newspapers when they reported about his debauched lifestyle. Prince William died at the age of 38 in his apartment in the Rue Auber, near the Paris Opera from a combination of Typhus, liver complaints and total exhaustion.

Sounds like he died doing what he loved – sex, drugs and a little opera!

Anyway, Rose then settled for an alternate husband. She married another member of royalty, Edouard Joseph “Hubert” Marie de Besiade d’Avaray, but we can just call him Marquis d’Avaray. Or Hubert. Whatever.

The Duke at right with his wife Rose and her uncle, Prince Chamay.

It was revealed that he “did not care for the white-faced stormy eyed little princess,” and that in fact he could not understand her and he did not know what to do with her.

She wasn’t much of a fan of him either, writing this about her husband years later:

“Hubert was a good looking, well groomed, extremely self-satisfied young man. His naturally curly hair was carefully combed and flattened out as if ironed. In spite of his looseness of features , his puffy yellow-white skin, his lightly bulging eyes of insipid blue, the tout ensemble was not unpleasing. He was tall well built but the absolute lack of athletic exercise, or any outdoor sports, made him at twenty five more like a stately majordomo than a alert active young man. He agreed to my selection of a bride as he would have agreed to the purchase of a good looking horse or a fine ornament.- with no feeling of delicacy.”

Yikes! Not off to a great start.

Antoine and his loving mother Rose.

Rose’s true love, Her Son

Rose ended up bearing Hubert a son named Antoine who she loved dearly. But as Antoine grew up, the love she felt for him was wrestled away in large part. The first reason was that she finally divorced the Duke in 1889, and he was granted custody of the boy. When this happened, Antoine was only afforded visits to see his mother Rose and other family members. As he grew older, Antoine was influenced by Rose’s own mother who wanted to groom the boy as a diplomat and member of the court. Antoine was interested in this, and became close to his grandmother, who was his mother’s rival. It seems grandma won the battle for his affections.

Rose became despondent and unhappy. Her attitude changed and she decided to abandon the rigors of court. The desire to forget led the princess far from home, spending and traveling lavishly all over the world. From the St. Pete Times again – “Her creed becomes that of the pleasure seeker – the searcher for thrills. She plunges into a giddy whirl of gayeties and the maze leads her to fields afar.”

The lavish journeys somewhat surprisingly ended in in our backyard, and here is where things get even more crazy. Florida crazy even!

Eccentric beyond Measure

By 1905, Rose had come to America and settled in Tampa of all places. I really can’t do the mind-boggling circumstances better than the St. Pete Times in 1926. So here it is…

The princess came to America with 95 dogs and 45 trunks of clothes. She lost her money and that of her friends in unwise investments; she was a princess and not a business woman. During the days when she lived away from the world, wishing the world to remember her as the Gold Rose of Paris, she spent the time in Tampa. Money was spent for the most expensive cuts of beefsteak to feed dogs which she had borrowed from the city pound-because the princess must have her dogs. In her day she owned many famous dogs, among them Old Hall Shamrock, an unbeaten world champion. Her dogs were famous the world over.

Finally, the Pinellas Point Mansion

The Princess had accumulated a vast collection of painted miniatures, jewelry, tapestries and many other treasures and artifacts from around the world throughout her life, but having soured on society, and then the tragic and sudden death of her son Antoine, killed in car race in 1921, she became reclusive.  Because of bad investments, her fortune was disappearing, but she still had her treasures!  Having no other heirs, what was she to do with them?

A Museum and a Namesake

The Argenteau Castle at Pinellas Point as originally built.

The Princess decided to have a museum / home built at Pinellas Point to display her treasures in perpetuity. She decided to call the pseudo-residence Argenteau Castle after her family castle in Belgium. If she ever had planned to actually live there is a question, but it is unlikely. Add to this peculiar legacy the fact that she died a mysterious death (rumors of poisoning) in 1925, just before the house was finished. Was this all planned, perhaps a self-inflicted death? She had lost her son, WWI had killed many of her European consorts, and she was a lonely recluse. Who can say for sure?

Rose passed just before the house was finished, but as it had been commissioned and paid for, the construction continued. When the museum finally opened in December 1926 the St. Petersburg Times reported, “The house was so new traces of the workmen still remain,” and the landscaping had yet to be done.  There were rooms dedicated to her canine pals, with hundreds of dog portraits, and a room dedicated to her son Antoine. But this says little about the incredible treasures housed there, a few of which were cataloged:

A framed bit of parchment bearing the time-worn date of 1070, the document which gave an ancestor of the Princess the grant of the castle, the right of establishing his own standing army; wedding gifts from the crowned heads of Europe; intimate pictures of Napoleon the Third, who favored the Princess’ mother; autographed music by the world’s greatest masters; books with inscribed fly-leaves that conjure up the best in history’s literature; great flounces of marvelous lace, still beautiful, lace which once graced the gowns of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette; trunks and trunks of gorgeous court gowns; negligees of exquisite design; paintings by famous artists such as Maude Earle; knick-knacks of centuries, gathered here and there in the roamings of the wild princess; the wedding gown of a Persian noble-woman; the nuptial robes of a sheik, the front door of his tent and the cahir of his home; rare silks and ivories of the Orient… and the list goes on.

Admission was charged but the museum was a financial failure, closing three years later.  After a battle over Rose’s estate, the treasures were owned and removed by her half-brother and Madeline Gill of Tampa.

Here Comes the Gang, and the Downfall, and the Restoration!

In 1933 former St. Petersburg mayor of green bench and baseball fame Al Lang purchased the Argenteau Castle at auction and converted it into a showplace residence.  Babe Ruth attended one of Mr. Lang’s parties at the house. Years later the house was abandoned, vandalized and condemned and eventually sold for $20,000 in the late 1960’s.  Repairs and renovations were made off and on over the next 30 years.  Subsequent owners made great progress into restoring the home into a showplace once again.  Central heat and air were installed in 2005.  Landscaping was completed in 2007.  To the writer’s untrained eye, no expense has been spared in this “first class” restoration.

The Mediterranean Revival house has four bedrooms, all with balconies.  Each room is on a different level with steps leading up or down into it.  Comparison of old and new photos reveal several major changes, including location of the front door, the addition of a garage, fencing and driveway.

Views from the Castle are spectacular – perhaps the best in St. Petersburg. Take a look at a few recent photos below found on a realty website.

The Princess’ “treasure” survives – in the form of the home and surrounding grounds. As for her other treasures – here is what we can find, written long ago:

Now the family’s artifacts gather dust in downtown St. Petersburg Florida USA , remnants from some long-forgotten estate sale. The pictures are pasted to scrapbook pages. The buyer was likely a 1930s version of a Princess Diana groupie. Then the groupie died in Florida retirement and the stuff moldered in an antique dealer’s crate. What are the items worth? Who knows. Everyone who knew the marquis and the princess are dead.

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