This is the Don CeSar hotel. It is about a mile north of where my family lived in Pass-A-Grille. Penny and I love walking up the beach to the Don and having an overpriced drink at the Beach Bar. It’s a great way to enjoy this fabulous hotel without renting a room.
This is not what the Don CeSar looked like when I moved to Florida in 1959. Then it was a rundown office building whose pink color was barely discernable. It was hard for me to imagine that it had ever been anything else.
The Don, started life when Thomas Rowe had a dream of building a pink castle. In 1924, he purchased 80 acres of land on the Gulf of Mexico in what is now St. Pete Beach. Rowe’s ‘Pink Lady’ opened in 1928. It soon became a favorite of the rich and famous such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clarence Darrow, Al Capone, Lou Gehrig and Franklin D. Roosevelt. By World War II the hotel had become run down. The Army bought the Don CeSar and turned into a military hospital. After the war, it was repurposed as a Veterans Administration Office. In 1967, the Veterans Administration started pulling out and the building was soon empty.
For the years it was abandoned, on the south side of the building, there were tall stacks of claw foot bathtubs. I wonder if any of those survived.
Then we heard the news that Don CeSar was going to be torn down. No one was interested in an old, decrepit, ‘Pink Lady’. I must admit I had trouble imaging that the building could be rehabilitated. But I didn’t want to lose it either. It marked the start of Pass-A-Grille. Everything south of the Don is an historic area and no tall buildings are allowed. There were lots of memories from the old Don. It was a great place to go to the beach. In my high school days it was a wonder place to have a bonfire and party on the beach at night. By the time we graduated, bon fires were banned on the beach.
The Don CeSar, even with its faded paint was a landmark visible along the coast and out to sea. My friend Richard and I often snorkeled on the beach at Pass-A-Grille. On one of those days we had a plastic blow up raft. We had been diving for a while and rested on the raft looking out to sea. I don’t know what we were talking about but we talked quite a while. When we turned around to look at the beach and saw the Don CeSar. It was much smaller than it should have been. The breeze and the current had taken us quite a ways off shore.
We weren’t concerned. The two of us with our fins on could hang onto the raft and easily get back to shore. We started kicking. After about a minute the cheap plastic raft split open and totally deflated. Rick and I looked at each other. I guess we are going to swim in.
Rick, with his long legs was a faster swimmer than me and led the way. It would have been a long swim but doable without the current. But the current from the outgoing tide was trying to pull us further out. About three quarters of the way in I was exhausted and didn’t think I could make it. But I kept going. When I got to where I could stand up I could barely walk to the beach. It was a close call. Being around the ocean as much as we were taught us that you always have to respect the sea. That day taught us to keep an eye on the shore and landmarks like the Don.
I heard that Don CeSar was only days away from the wrecking ball when a group of hoteliers saved it. The Don CeSar reopened in November of 1973. It is an amazing piece of architecture that was almost lost. It’s once again, the Pink Lady, frequented by celebrities and has been the location for many films.
There are a lot of new memories for us locals. When my kids were growing up we often stopped at the ice cream shop on the ground floor. No bonfires on the beach but we had a Boca Ciega class of 1966 reunion there.
One of the best memories is my sister’s wedding. The ceremony was outside near the beach. Then there was a great dinner and dance in the ballroom.
The story of the Don whetted my interest in architecture and preserving historical properties. That eventually led to the television series, Edifice & Us. I would have loved to do an episode about the Don. I made a couple of inquiries but that hasn’t happened yet.
One day you may get to visit the Don CeSar as a guest or just for a walk through. I hope these photos and the story will help you appreciate the value of preserving heritage properties.