For nearly a century, The Don CeSar has been an icon in St. Pete Beach. Standing eight stories tall, this beautiful Spanish-style hotel and spa can be seen from miles away against the paradisiacal blue sky of Florida. Thousands of people flock to The Don CeSar year around for its stunning architecture and delectable food, but few know that the pink picturesque hotel has a history as rich as its color.
Thomas Rowe arrived in Florida at age 42 and began investing in real estate. He met his broker and business partner, Walter Fuller, in 1919 and began a successful business and friendship that lasted only a few years. The moment Rowe learned an 80-acre tract of land north of Pass-A-Grille was for sale he demanded Fuller buy it. The discussion of purchasing the 80-acres caused a rift between Rowe and Fuller. Days later, and after much resistance from Fuller, the two men parted ways and Rowe bought the land for $100,000. Rowe envisioned a beautiful castle-like hotel on the backdrop of the beautiful Florida coast complete with a magnificent Spanish-style subdivision next to it. By 1925, Rowe knew the housing boom in St. Pete was sure to end so he sold nearly all of the lots in the subdivision for a high price of $5,000 each. In 1926 the boom blew up; however, the construction of The Don CeSar was already under way.
Rowe chose the name Don CeSar from the hero of an English opera, Maritana. It is a classic comedy set in 17th century Madrid. Don CeSar was to meet his fate with a firing squad when Don Jose made a deal with him to deceive King Charles II and marry his wife. The story is brimming with romance and tragedy. The story ends with Don CeSar as a hero. He is appointed Governor by the King and marries the beautiful Maritana for a happy finale. The distinct “rouge” color of The Don CeSar comes from a rosy lime mixed with mortar that reminded him of his childhood in Ireland.
Rowe commissioned a well-known architect from Indianapolis, named Henry Dupont, to draw out the plans for The Don CeSar. The original plan cost $450,000. It was a “T” shaped six story hotel with 110 rooms. As Rowe’s dreams for his magnificent hotel grew, so too did the budget. By the end of construction, the hotel doubled in size to 220 rooms and 220 baths. The total price after revisions and renovations came to $1,250,000, more than double the original cost. Building the hotel cost everything Rowe had, so when it came time to furnish it he had to call for a favor from his friend and New Jersey industrialist Warren Webster. Webster gave Rowe a loan to fill his grand hotel with horse-hair mattresses, mahogany chairs, and velvet draped windows. Only the finest materials for Rowe’s pink palace.
The Don CeSar opened January 16, 1928. Thomas Wiles and his wife arrived from Boston six days prior to be the very first guests to sign the register. The price for dinner and dancing was $2.50 and a room was $24 a night. Over the seasons, wealthy elites and entertainers were guests at the Don CeSar. Bloomingdale, Gimbel, Dr. Mayo of the Mayo clinic, and writers such as Faith Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald all visited the luxurious hotel in the thirties. Like most businesses, the great depression struck Rowe’s hotel and almost cost him everything. There was a time the register held only $100, so guests had to cash their travelers checks in town. Rowe could not pay his staff until the end of the season, but he always paid every cent he owed them. During the depression era, Rowe made a deal with the New York Yankees baseball owner Jacob Ruppert to house the team for three years. Everyone but the great Babe Ruth stayed at The Don CeSar. This deal was the Don CeSar’s salvation and prevented Rowe from going under.
Rowe died May 5, 1940 in his Don CeSar suite. He was a pioneer for Florida development and a celebrated boss to his staff. His wife, Mary Rowe, inherited The Don CeSar and ran it for another year until December 7, 1941. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the room cancellations flooded in. Gas was rationed, worries were high, and the Don CeSar was sure to close its doors. Mrs. Rowe sold the hotel to the U.S. Government and it became a hospital for the military base in St. Petersburg. The Don, as they called it, served as a rest and recovery haven for traumatized soldiers who fought overseas. The treatment included community support for soldiers by hosting dances and social gatherings. The program was so effective that Readers Digest wrote a special feature on the program and encouraged other organizations to follow suite. Once the war was over, the hotel became a VA Headquarters until 1969. The outdated property was then abandoned and left to become an eyesore for the community.
In 1972, June Hurley Young headed a committee called “Save the Don” in an effort to restore the historic hotel. The City of St. Pete Beach bought the disintegrating hotel from the Government who quickly turned around and sold it to William Bowman for $460,000. It took 18 months, $3.5 million, and 12,000 gallons of pink paint, but on November 24, 1973 the Don CeSar was opened once again for business. The Don CeSar saw entertainers throughout the 80’s including Robert Di Niro filming “Once Upon a Time in America” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers filming an MTV video special. It was named an official historic landmark in 1975 and is currently owned by Lowe’s.