Next time someone scoffs at the idea of vacationing in Florida, ask them if they’ve ever been to the “Pink Castle of the South.” Once a playground for the rich and famous during the Jazz Age, the hotel’s Moorish and Spanish architectural details, coupled with its storied history and legends, make it one of Florida’s best kept secrets.
The Don CeSar, a Great Gatsby-era hotel built in 1928 and known as the “Pink Castle” of the American South, represents some of the best Mediterranean and Moorish design on the eastern shore board. Located on the Gulf of Mexico in St. Petersburg, Florida and designed by architect Henry Dupont, The Don CeSar is one of the nation’s most historic sites, with a long history of affluent guests, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and even Al Capone. The glittering, high society crowd was known for their prohibition-era debauchery, but now tourists come from all over to enjoy the pink palace for its old-Hollywood glamour and tranquil beachfront setting.
Somehow the hotel made it through the Great Depression, but almost fell derelict during World War II and the years thereafter. In 1969, the local community established a group of investors to save it, and the hotel was reopened as a full service resort in 1973.
Culture Trip interviewed Susan Owen, The Don CeSar’s guest experience manager, to learn more about the history and design of the hotel, including its literary significance and even a few legends.
Culture Trip: What are some important architectural details that make the hotel so unique?
Susan Owen: The Don CeSar is reminiscent of a Mediterranean-style castle, set upon the sugary white sand beaches of St. Pete Beach, with its majestic pink exterior, historic grandeur and striking Moorish and Mediterranean architectural design elements: arched openings, beamed ceilings, red tile roofs giving the building a Spanish solidarity, bell towers and imperial turrets.
CT: Why St. Petersburg Florida? Was there a particular reason for the selection of this location?
SO: Thomas Rowe [the hotel’s proprietor] moved here for the warm weather, as the cold weather in Virginia was complicating his health issues (asthma and severe heart condition). He was fascinated with the island, and against the advice of his friend and real estate broker, Walter Fuller, he proceeded with purchasing the 80 acres of land and continued on to build The Don CeSar.
CT: Has the hotel ever shown up in films or literature? If so, which ones?
SO: Yes, The Don CeSar has appeared in the following films: Health (1980), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Thunder in Paradise (1993), Forever Mine (1999), Love Comes Lately (2007), The Infiltrator (2016). [It also appears] in the book Zelda by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
CT: One can literally picture Fitzgerald crafting the image of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker here. Are there any anecdotes or tales related to various famous guests of the past? Specifically Fitzgerald and Capone?
SO: F. Scott Fitzgerald did some writing at The Don. Jean Orr, Thomas Rowe’s personal assistant, did typing for him. In the book Zelda, he refers to The Don CeSar as a “hotel in an island wilderness.” The 5th floor fountain, which is no longer there, was one of the fountains that Zelda danced in after a few too many cocktails. It is said that the three-year contract to house the New York Yankees in the early ’30s is what saved the hotel. With players, club officials and media, the Yankees kept the hotel filled. On the train ride home from their first spring training in St. Petersburg, Babe Ruth collapsed from reportedly overindulging his large appetite for food and drink, causing him to miss the first month of the regular season. He was suspended later that season.
CT: Are there any “secrets” of the hotel? Any legends that may be true?
SO: Legend has it that a Thomas Rowe may still walk the halls of his beloved hotel, as well as the beach.
CT: Why the pink coloring?
SO: The Don CeSar was modeled after The Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki. Rowe would tell you the hotel’s color was “rouge,” reminiscent of the “rosy lime mixed with mortar” that he saw in Ireland when he was a child. He found the right mixture and copied it to the stucco of the hotel’s exterior.
CT: What’s the most significant area or structural component that was restored during the ’70s?
SO: The hotel was in a state of despair when William Bowman became the new owner in 1972. Broken windows, peeling paint, bare corridors and a penthouse full of pigeons. Everything needed to be restored. Pane by pane, 13,000 pieces of glass were removed, the wood was scraped, repaired, replaced and repainted. Of all the jobs, this was the most tedious and time consuming, but Bowman preserved the hotel’s original windows.
It would take 12,000 gallons of pink paint to cover The Don once the cracks were patched and all of the walls waterproofed. Significant additions during the ’70s include balconies to some of the guest rooms and a dramatic arrival bridge and overpass over Gulf Boulevard.