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Success culminates in big pink operatic vision

Real estate speculator Thomas J. Rowe couldn't pass up untamed Pass-a-Grille land. The Don was his crown jewel.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 4, 2002

ST. PETE BEACH -- Shortly after arriving here in 1919, Thomas J. Rowe stormed into Walter P. Fuller's real estate office.

"Show me the best speculative buy in St. Petersburg," Rowe demanded. "I'm going to make you an unusual proposition."

Rowe gave his assets to Fuller to acquire property, and within six years Fuller had multiplied Rowe's resources 50 times over. The two then parted.

"We only had one dispute," Fuller said. "I was heartbroken to end our relationship. He was the smartest real estate man this area has ever known."

Rowe later made headlines after launching a war against mosquitoes. He helped light the causeway that stretched to the Gulf of Mexico and connect the islands to the mainland with bridges and roadways. His triumph was a pink palace, the Don CeSar, a monument to his blessings.

"He was like a baronet," historian June Hurley Young said, "a feisty kind of guy. Some called him a martinet, sort of a dictator. His whole life was Don CeSar."

Born in 1872 in Cambridge Post, Mass., Rowe was orphaned at age 4. He later sailed to Dublin, Ireland, to live with his grandfather. After his education in England, he returned to America at age 21.

In New York City, Rowe entered construction. He subsequently dealt in Norfolk, Va., real estate for two decades. At age 47, suffering from asthma and a heart condition, he came to St. Petersburg. He was estranged from his wife, Mary, and lived in a St. Petersburg hotel.

Rowe gave Fuller $10,000, an $11,000 mortgage and the power to deal property in his behalf. Fuller had netted Rowe more than $1-million by 1925, when C. Perry Snell featured 80 Pass-a-Grille acres for $100,000.

"Walter, buy that land," insisted Rowe, who with Fuller helped others create a lighted "whiteway" on the Central Avenue Causeway. Fuller refused, citing Rowe's poor health and the property's inaccessibility to the mainland. The dispute ended their relationship, but the property purchase began Rowe's dream.

"(Rowe) saw curved boulevards with formal rows of palm trees, oleanders and cork trees, and fine homes rising from the jungle wilderness," Young noted in her book, the Don CeSar Story.

About 1925, Rowe subdivided his land into $5,000 lots and began planning his hotel from his office at Central Avenue and 15th Street. As small barges transported materials, difficulties mounted.

Costs soared. Rowe fired his architect, Henry Dupont, and subdivision buyers defaulted on their payments. Tax problems surfaced. Rowe persevered and named his $1.5-million hotel after Don Cesar de Bazan, a character from his favorite opera, Maritana.

"Pink lime in the stucco gave the hotel its color," said Young, 70. "Otherwise, Rowe's tastes were masculine and plain."

On Jan. 10, 1928, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Wiles of Boston initiated Rowe's hotel register. Six days later, about 1,500 people attended Monday's official opening of the structure that covered nearly 382 feet of beach frontage at 3400 Gulf Blvd.

Cars displaying nearly every U.S. license plate filled the hotel's parking lot. Roses and Easter lilies abounded as guests danced to the Don CeSar Orchestra. Dinner cost $2.50 a person; the 300-plus rooms were $24 a night.

"If there is a civilization today," said the silver-haired Rowe, a founder and decadelong president of the Jeffersonian Club, "it is because of all men, the realtors have forged the strongest spoke in the wheel of time."

In 1929, Rowe financed the mosquito control board and was appointed by Florida's governor to the body. "Rowe freed this section of Pinellas County (of mosquitoes) through a program of control that was carefully and scientifically surveyed," former board member Claude Strickland once said.

In the 1930s, Rowe battled the Don out of receivership by ignoring rampant prejudice and welcoming Jewish department store tycoons, including Gimbel and Bloomingdale, as guests. He signed a three-year contract to house the New York Yankees. He introduced alcohol.

"Rowe presided like the lord of the manor from his high-backed chair at the top of the stairs," Young wrote.

While running for re-election to the mosquito control board in 1940, Rowe suffered a heart attack. "He wouldn't even let me take his arm to help him up the few steps to his rooms," Rowe's secretary, Lucille Wilson, said. "Such a proud man."

Rowe, 68, died three days later inside the pink palace that his wife would inherit.

Said J. Harold Sommers, founder and publisher of the Tourist News:

"Someday when (Rowe) looks down from that great balcony from above and sees his beloved Gulf Beaches lined with magnificent structures, he'll think, 'That's grand, boys. Keep up the good work.' "

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at

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