It is the Tampa Bay area's beautiful pink palace, the dream
of honeymooners and the destination of tourists from around the
But what is a Don CeSar? Where did this Cinderella castle
get its name?
Sometime about 1919, Boston-born, Ireland-raised and England-educated
Thomas J. Rowe came to St. Petersburg. He had lived in Virginia
briefly, and was in real estate, according to The Remarkable
History of the Don CeSar, assembled by Glynna Hanchette. Rowe's
health problems brought him to Florida at age 42, according to
Ms. Hanchette's records. Historian Walter Fuller told the late
Dick Bothwell, a St. Petersburg Times columnist, that
Rowe came here in 1919 with $21,000 and broken health.
Through shrewd investing in real estate, Rowe parlayed this
money into $1-million, Bothwell's column said, and bought the
80-acre tract just north of Pass-a-Grille for $100,000. Rowe
subdivided the land into lots and named the area Don Ce-Sar
Place (hotel restorer William Bowman later removed that hyphen)
after his favorite opera, Maritana.
The Don Caesar de Bazan, as the opera hero was named, might
have been the role model for his namesake hotel, for their stories
were similar. The opera lead was proud but poor, came near death
and endured abandonment, but in the end he got the girl and they
lived happily ever after.
As for the "pink lady," it was under construction
by 1926 when the real estate boom ended. He was able to continue
the construction and the hotel was finished in 1928. On opening
night, Jan. 16, 1928, says Ms. Hanchette, 1,500 "elegantly
attired ladies and gentlemen filled the halls, dined on the fifth
floor and danced in the ballroom to the five-piece Don Ce-Sar
Orchestra, all for $2.50 per person."
"I was at the Don when Mr. Rowe opened the hotel,"
said Helen MacLeod who was principal of Sunshine Elementary School
at Pass-a-Grille from 1930 to 1952. "I went to that opening
dance on the fifth floor. Everything was tile and Spanish architecture.
I wore the first really nice evening dress I ever owned."
She remembers Thomas Rowe quite well, for she and her husband,
Norman, bought a lot from him on East Maritana Drive when they
were married in 1935. They built a home there that year, and
she still lives in it.
"He was a very quiet man who didn't make many friends,"
Mrs. MacLeod said. "But he was very honest and upright."
Rowe walked around the subdivision every morning at 11 and every
afternoon at 4, she recalls.
"He would speak, but he wasn't very sociable. He walked
around to see that everything was in order. It was beautiful,"
she said. "The streets out here were all brick, six feet
wide and lined with hibiscus bushes."
She also remembers the old McAdoo Bridge, which allowed access
to St. Petersburg Beach from the mainland. "The planks in
the bridge were loose and the nails were visible. You went over
it with a prayer."
The Don had a good season after its opening, but the stock
market crash in October 1929 ended its prosperity. Rowe hung
on. The hotel went into receivership and he was appointed receiver
and allowed to keep it open and try to bring it out of debt,
Ms. Hanchette says.
His efforts were aided by visits from the New York Yankees,
who stayed at the hotel during spring training for the 1931 to
1933 seasons. During the 1930s, the hotel was frequented by the
famous, including the Gimbels and the Bloomingdales of department
store fame, Dr. Walter Mayo, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife,
Zelda, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Soreno and Vinoy
hotels transported their guests to the Don's facilities, paying
Rowe 25 cents per person, so it survived the Depression.
Rowe died at the Don in 1940, and guests and staff swear they
see his ghost yet. But it's a friendly ghost.
World War II dealt a final blow to the Don CeSar as a hotel.
It was bought by the government and converted into a hospital
by the Army. It housed several other government agencies following
the war, but after the federal building was constructed, the
hotel was locked up in 1969. There was even talk of tearing it
down, and a "Save the Don" committee was formed.
Enter William Bowman. Bowman bought the hotel in 1972, completely
restoring it and re-opening it in 1973. Besieged by the ensuing
oil crisis and a brutal red tide season, he lost the Don. It
now is owned by Cigna Insurances. HMC, Hospitality Management
Corp., a division of Registry, now manages the Don and in 1987
it became known as the Don CeSar, a Registry Resort.