The Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach
If you are a beach walker, a boater, a lover of hotels, or just enamored with fascinating buildings, you can’t miss the eight-story pink hotel on St. Pete Beach! The Don CeSar was built by Thomas Rowe, it opened its doors in regal splendor on January 10, 1928. Rowe started construction in 1926, but after many revisions to the original plan, by mid-1927 he was running short of funds. Pass-a-Grille industrialist Warren Webster loaned him the dollars to furnish the hotel and on January 10, the first guests checked in. An elaborate formal opening was staged on January 16, 1928. In those days dinner cost $2.50 and a room on the European plan went for $24 per night!
The Early Years of the Don CeSar Hotel
Even though the Don CeSar had a relatively short season (Dec. 15 – April 15), it flourished through the thirties with a register that included the department store owners Gimbel & Bloomingdale, Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Walter Mayo, writers Faith Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many more affluent businessmen and their wives along with movie stars and entertainers. It became known as one of the most luxurious hotels in Florida.
However, the depression era took its toll on Rowe’s dream hotel and after barely holding on to his investment, he struck a deal with Yankee baseball owner Jacob Ruppert to house the team there for three years. This proved to be the Don’s salvation; not only had Rowe built the hotel, but he was now able to develop the surrounding blocks; building duplexes, putting in a park, and even a miniature golf course. He also headed the Pinellas County Mosquito Control Board. Rowe died in his hotel suite in 1940. In 1942 his wife sold the hotel to the U.S. Government.
The once splendid hotel became a hospital for the military based in St. Petersburg and in 1943 it housed traumatized air force pilots. It was selected as an R&R hospital because it was “a quiet, peaceful location along the warm Gulf waters and beaches.” The military established itself in the community and soon became part of island living. Residents gave of their time to visit and socialize with the veterans, joined them to see movies in the old ballroom and helped put on dances and dinners. Once the war was over, the once elegant hotel, still owned by the government, became a VA Headquarters, remaining so until the property was declared obsolete in 1969 and the Government left it in disrepair with peeling paint and gutted rooms.
The Don CeSar Hotel in the 1970’s
The property soon became an eyesore on the island and was headed toward demolition. A citizens’ committee was formed and a “Save the Don” effort headed by June Hurley Young was launched. Finally, in 1972, the Government sold it to the City of St. Pete Beach, which, in turn, quickly sold it to William Bowman, a hotel entrepreneur, for the purchase price of $460,000. In the contract dealings, however, in order for Bowman to receive permission to construct the overpass and redo the hotel entrance, he relinquished the Don Vista property directly to the south of the main hotel. This is now the Don Vista Community Center which is owned by the City.
Bowman’s engineers found the Don was constructed of concrete and was a virtually sound fortress! After spending $3,500,000.00 over 18 months, Bowman and his partners reopened the big pink structure in November of 1973. In 1975, it was put on the National Historic Register thereby becoming an official historic landmark.
The Don CeSar Hotel Today
This eight story towering building has been and still is a permanent marker for boaters. It can be seen for miles to the east and west and has its place on nautical charts. It has retained its pink color (but not always) for most of its life, from a light pink to a darker hue. The name “Pink Palace” has become its trademark name. Today, the color is protected by law as a mariner’s guide.
This elegant, top of the line hotel, over the past ten years has been completely renovated and refurbished, with much of the decor similar to that in Rowe’s time. A ceramic fountain on the fifth floor was uncovered and completely restored. Large conference rooms fill the entire fifth floor. Rooms, baths and suites are priced over $250 a night. (Wonder if Thomas Rowe could have envisioned that?) The pent house occupying the eighth floor has a price tag of over $1500 a night. In keeping with its original builder’s dream, it continues to be a hotel which offers elegant surroundings, impeccable service, recreation and relaxation along the quiet Gulf shore.
Story by Sally Yoder and Photos from the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum