Pink Palace on the Beach
of St. Pete:
The DonCeSar Beach Resort, St. Petersburg Beach, Florida
On the fifth
floor of the Don CeSar Beach Resort where the walls are painted
strawberry-ice cream-pink, the King Charles Room is reserved for gala
balls and Sunday brunches. But in the late 1920s and through the 30s, it
was the Grand Ballroom, open every night for dining and dancing.
Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig, even Al Capone were frequent guests. So
were F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Elegantly dressed in formal attire,
they would sail through the evenings, drinking champagne, dancing to
songs like “The Way You Look Tonight,” and every so often, stepping out
on the terrace to watch the moon rise over the Gulf of Mexico.
Ron MacDougall, Resort Host and Concierge
|“There are people who tell me
they’ve seen the ghosts of the couple who epitomized the Jazz
Age up here," says Ron MacDougall, Resort Host and Concierge at
the historic St. Petersburg property. “What’s more, they are not
the only spirits to have been spotted. I once escorted a group
of clairvoyants through the hotel. They claimed to have found
what they were looking for on the second, sixth, and seventh
floors. But they insisted the strongest vibes were on the fifth
To date no spirit-sightings have been reported
down on the first floor of the Don CeSar, the busy and bustling
entrance level where people check in and out, dine at the
Maritana Grille, look over the listings for events of the day,
head out for a swim in one of the pools or to lounge beneath a
cabana on the beach, or go shopping in the lower arcade, or get
a massage in the Spa Oceana. Here the mood is up-tempo,
pulsating and lively, what one would expect in a 21st-century
Except in the Lobby Bar, a high-ceilinged, wide and
deep space off the entrance hall where the ambience is, as Ron put it,
"something out of the Great Gatsby Era." Walls are painted the color of
eggshells, ceiling fans spin lazily over a long mahogany bar, intimate
conversation areas alongside a wall of windows are marked by potted
palms and furnished with wicker settees, and doorways at the rear open
to a maze of courts and gated, gardened walkways that descend to the
pool complex and the pure white sands of St. Petersburg Beach beyond. In
the center of a marble floor polished to a mirror-like sheen, stands a
concert grand-sized piano. And on a starlit Florida evening, when the
top is raised and a tuxedoed pianist is at the keyboard, it would come
as no surprise to find Scott and Zelda dancing "Cheek to Cheek."
|An appealing combination of
setting and sensibility characterizes the nine-story pink stucco
Mediterranean-style castle whose irregular lines, Moorish towers
and turrets, Mudejar arches, and romantic bell towers all
trimmed in white have made it a well-known, easily identifiable
landmark, spotted from miles away in the confluence of
waterways, bridges and roads that cross the St. Petersburg area.
Arguably the premier resort on the Gulf of
Mexico from the Florida Keys to the northeast corner of the
Texas coast, it has more than seven miles of beachfront, an
acclaimed seafood restaurant, an arcade of shops, an array of
waterfront activities, access to golf and tennis courts, on-site
entertainment, and a brand new spa. It also has a storied past.
|"There is so much history associated with
'The Don,'" Ron told us. It was a Sunday morning, and the de
facto hotel historian, dressed to match the hotel in white
jacket and pink tie, was showing us around. "It was the dream
palace of Thomas Rowe who had made his fortune in Florida real
estate," Ron said. "He bought 80 acres of land and built the
hotel which he named after the lead character in his favorite
opera 'Maritana.' It opened January 16, 1928 with dining and
dancing in the Grand Ballroom and was an immediate and great
He continued, "The next year
the Depression hit, and Rowe went bankrupt. But he worked it out
by getting Jacob Ruppert to agree to house the New York Yankees
at the hotel while they were here for spring training.
Sportswriters came down, celebrities came. That saved the Don."
We were walking towards the beach now dotted with
bright blue cabanas. People had already staked out space on blue
recliners along the two swimming pools, taking in the morning sun or
seeking the shade under broad white umbrellas. Ron turned and looked
back at the hotel fronted by a row of palms. "Rowe lived in the hotel,"
he said. "He died in his room in 1940. World War II began, and the Army
bought the building and used it as a hospital for airmen; the penthouse
became an operating theater. Once the war was over, the hotel became the
property of the Veterans Administration. They stripped all the beautiful
features and painted everything green. After they moved out in 1969,
the 'Pink Palace' stood vacant and abandoned. It was a ruined site,
covered with graffiti, a candidate for demolition."
|He continued, "But the community
of St. Pete Beach would not let it die. Together with some
former employees, they began a 'Save the Don' campaign and
succeeded in finding a buyer who did just that. By 1973,
restored and refreshed, it re-opened; the following year, it was
admitted to the National Register of Historic American Places."
Since then, the Don CeSar has gone through
several multi-million dollar renovations, the result being a
hotel that bridges the demands of time, where the technological
features, comforts, and facilities that define a modern luxury
resort accommodate valuable architectural and design elements
from a previous era. When modern needs clash with the goals of
aesthetic preservation, creative decision making is required.
Such was the case with Spa Oceana. Although there is a 1,600
square-foot Fitness Center on the ground level, in recent years,
the need for a full service spa had become increasingly
apparent. The question was where to put it? There was no room
within the existing structure, and as a protected property, the
exterior of the building could not be touched. The answer was
found in building an entirely new pink and white stucco-clad
structure alongside and almost, but not quite, touching a wing
of the Pink Palace.
Although Spa Oceana opened in March
2008, from the outside, it looks like it was always there. Within,
however, all is sleek, even minimalist, cool and contemporary with
sixteen treatment rooms that face the dunes or beachfront and eternally
blue waters of the Gulf -- a guarantee of instant serenity. There is a
glamorous rooftop terrace with cabanas, lounging space, and endless
vistas, comfortable lounges, locker and shower spaces, baths, steam
rooms, even special rooms for couples engaging in dual massages, and a
team of enthusiastic professionals practiced in providing the great
range of massages, beauty treatments, body wraps, and styling services
that have made Spa Oceana a highlight of the resort as well as a draw
for local residents.
Pedicure Salon, Spa Oceana
Roof Terrace of Spa Oceana at dusk
"The spa is a big attraction for people in a wedding
party. They're down at the hotel for the weekend, as a rule, and part of
the package often includes an afternoon of treatments, " said Cindy Lew.
Tall and slender with long dark hair and a winning smile, Cindy, who had
recently come on as director of marketing, had joined us for lunch at
the aptly named Sea Porch Café where sitting in oversized wicker chairs
upholstered in bold floral chintz and surrounded by large windows
looking out to the pool area, we kept forgetting we were actually in an
indoor space on the ground level of the hotel.
The confusion is part of the charm. "Last Valentine's Day
we had seven weddings going on simultaneously," Cindy told us. "But it's
such a big hotel, there are so many different places for ceremonies and
receptions, indoors and outdoors, one leading to another, you can have
one event going on in one place and never know other events are going on
someplace else. There are three full time wedding planners -- all
notarized so they can perform the ceremonies themselves. And nearly all
of the 400 wedding ceremonies held here each year are at sunset."
Director of Marketing
The aptly named Sea Porch Café
The indoor-outdoor melding intensifies in the Maritana
Grille, a well-known destination restaurant where the clientele is local
as much as transient, Here the world is a study in blue. Walls are
painted a shade of aqua marine, ceiling-high pillars are paneled with
blue mirrors, and one gets the sense of being on a submarine level of an
ocean liner. A sizeable aquarium cuts through the length of a long wall
revealing a concourse on the other side. Diners become visible to
strollers and vice versa, but they pay each other no mind being too
entranced by jewel-like, salt-water tropical fish swimming around coral
and plants of the deep while a three-foot-long eel, the color of fresh
grass, slithers lazily across a rocky bottom.
All of which merge into a setting that befits a
sophisticated, high-end dining room devoted to the culinary gifts of the
sea all of which, save lobster, come from the waters around Florida. For
us, dinner began appropriately with a delicate pan-seared sea scallop
served over an Asian-style slaw of cabbage, shitake mushrooms and
carrots in a sauce of sweet and soy reduction. We moved on to dry land
for starters: a refreshing English pea soup with crudities made of
fingerling potatoes and a cheese terrine where two medallions of herbed
goat cheese, wrapped in a potato and heated, were placed on a bed of
micro-greens drizzled with a truffled vinaigrette. But for the main
event, we returned to the Maritana theme with Maine lobster that came
with three different pasta shells in a mixture of basil, herbs, leeks,
micro greens and tomatoes -- an interesting and flavorful combo, and the
signature (and excellent) dish of the Don's signature dining room:
horseradish-crusted salmon served over lobster butter.
|"It's been on the menu for fifteen years,"
our server said. "Whenever they've tried to take it off,
customers demand its return."
night at the Don found us up on the fifth floor with Ron once
again. The sun had set but the sky was still light, and standing
out on the terrace of the King Charles Room, he pointed out the
lay of the land. "The region is protected," he said. "No high
rise building is possible so there's always the open view of the
||We looked up to the north, down to the south.
Streets in the distance were lined with small houses or condos,
all part of the original 80 acres that Rowe had purchased more
than 80 years ago. "Each street still bears the name he gave it,
all for characters in the opera."
Outside the King Charles Room, Ron gestured
towards a sizeable fountain centered in the foyer. Somehow we
hadn't noticed it before. "Here's one last ghost story before
you leave," he said. "When Thomas Rowe was a young man and
studying in London, he met and fell in love with a young woman
named Lucinda. Her parents objected to him so the couple would
secretly meet at a fountain. Then one day Lucinda failed to
appear. Her parents had found out about their liason and
spirited her away.
"From what I've been told, this fountain is an
exact replica of the one in London. In life, the couple never
met again. But every so often, someone will claim they've been
seen together beside the fountain in the Don CeSar."
Moving towards the elevator, we turned back
for a last look. For a moment it seemed . . .
"I think everyone should experience this
place," Ron added as the elevator door opened and we stepped
inside. "We should value things that we have, hold on to them."
Don CeSar Beach Resort
A Loews Hotel
3400 Gulf Boulevard
St. Pete Beach, FL 33706
Photographs by Harvey Frommer
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights