By Marilyn Turk
We recently took a Spring Break vacation to St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. As we crossed over the bridge to the beach, I was captivated by pink towers rising before us. The closer we got to the building the more enthralled I became. It was not our final destination, but being the history buff that I am, I knew this was no new building, and I had to find out its story.
In 1924, Thomas Rowe was living in Virginia and suffering from health problems such as asthma. His doctor told him that if he wanted to live to old age, he should move to a more southern climate.
Rowe took the doctor’s advice and moved to the St. Petersburg area. A real estate developer, he purchased 80 acres on St. Petersburg Beach for $100,000, and in 1926, began construction of his dream hotel, “the pink castle.” Architect Henry Dupont was hired to design the hotel and Carlton Beard was the contractor.
Named for the chivalrous Don Ce-Sar in Vincent Wallace’s light opera Maritana, the hotel is a blend of Mediterranean and Moorish influence. Arched openings, red clay tile roofs, balconies and tower-like upper stories are representative of the two styles. The original design called for a $450,000 six-story hotel with 110 rooms and baths, but was expanded to ten stories, 220 rooms and baths, raising the cost to $1.25 million – 300 % over budget when it opened on January 16, 1928.
The luxury hotel attracted the rich and famous of the Jazz Age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and even gangster Al Capone. When the Great Depression hit the nation, the hotel suffered as did the rest of the economy, but Rowe struck a deal with Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert to house his team during spring training for three years, a move that kept the hotel in business during the difficult financial times.
In 1940, Rowe collapsed in the lobby from a heart attack. He refused to leave the hotel and was treated around the clock in a room on the first floor, where he died. A year later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, "telegrams poured in with cancellations for the coming season and within weeks, 50 percent of reservations were cancelled,” according to the book the , published in 1974 by local historian June Hurley Young.
Lowe’s widow saw no choice but to sell the massive hotel, and in 1942 sold it to the U.S. Army for $450,000. The Pink Palace became a hospital for recovering servicemen for twenty years until the government abandoned the building, leaving it to fall into disrepair.
The once-beautiful hotel saw years of deterioration until it was scheduled to be torn down. However, another hotelier named William Bowman Jr., stepped in at the last minute to save it in 1971. By 1972 he had the hotel reopened and ready for guests once again.
Since then, the hotel has had several updates: another outdoor pool was added; chandeliers were replaced in the main lobby, contemporary furniture was added and new shops were opened. Prudential Insurance took over ownership of the hotel 12 years ago, and Loews Hotels has managed the property, restoring the grandeur of the old hotel.
The jet-setters who have stayed at the hotel since it was brought back from the dead include a who's who: Lauren Bacall, Carol Burnett, Tim Burton, Bryan Cranston, the Bush family, and many other famous stars and musicians.
Before we left the area, I spent a few minutes roaming the hotel, taking pictures that don't do it justice, and imagining what is was like to be one of the guests during the Roaring 20's.
Award-winning author Marilyn Turk lives in and writes about the coast – past and present. A multi-published author, she writes a lighthouse blog at http://marilynturk.com. Her latest release, Rebel Light, Book 1 in the Coastal Lights Legacy series, is now available along with A Gilded Curse, and Lighthouse Devotions on amazon.com. Marilyn is also a contributor to Daily Guideposts Devotional.