The life of a Pink Palace – The Don Ce Sar

The life of a Pink Palace – The Don Ce Sar

If you are a beach walker, a boater, a lover of hotels, or just enamored of fascinating buildings, you can’t miss the eight story pink hotel on St. Pete Beach! 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 was $2.50, and a room on the European plan went for $24 per night!

Even though the Don Ce Sar 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.

But the depression era took its toll on Rowe’s dream hotel and after barely holding onto 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 did Rowe build the hotel but he also developed 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 and in 1942 his wife sold the hotel to the U.S. Government.
The once splendid hotel became a hospital for military bases in St. Petersburg, and in 1943 it housed traumatized air force pilots. It was selected as the 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, still owned by the government, the once elegant hotel 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 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 quickly sold it to William Bowman, a hotel entrepreneur, for the purchase price of $460,000.

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, 1973. In 1975, it was designated on the National Historic Register thereby becoming an official historic landmark.

This eight story towering building has been, and is, a permanent marker for boaters. It can be seen for miles east and west and has its place on nautical charts. It has retained its pink color (but not always) for most of its life, going from light pink to a darker hue, but the name, “Pink Palace” has become its trademark name.

This elegant, top of the line hotel, resort and spa is currently owned by Host Hotels & Resorts. Over the years, it has been completely renovated and refurbished, with much of the decor similar to Rowe’s time and it is a constant “up-keep in progress.” Large conference rooms fill the entire fifth floor. Rooms, baths and suites are priced at current value in the hotel market... (Wonder if Thomas Rowe could have envisioned that?) In keeping with the original builder’s dream, it continues to be a hotel which offers elegant surroundings, impeccable service, recreation and relaxation along the quiet Gulf shore.

Origin of the name “Don Ce Sar”
“Don Ce Sar” is named for the hero Don CeSar de Bazan in the English opera Maritana. As the story goes, London and the 1840’s brought together musician William Vincent Wallace and young playwright Edward Fitzball to collaborate on the opera Maritana. They “borrowed” material from a French play called Don Ce- Sar de Bazan. Maritana opened in London in 1845 and the story was later used as a vehicle for Paramount’s The Spanish Dancer, starring PolaNegri and Adolphe Menjou in the 1920’s.