Photo and Story by Kathleen Walls
The exterior of the Don CeSar
Halloween, what better than a haunted hotel. The classic ghost story is
found at the Don Cesar Hotel. This St. Petersburg landmark grew out of one man's
ill-fated romance. Perhaps the dashing "Don Cesar" and his beautiful Maritana
were doomed from the start. Then again, perhaps they have finally reunited in the
afterlife and are now living their dream "life" for all eternity in their castle
by the sea overlooking the azure waters of Tampa Bay. You decide for yourself.
was an orphaned American raised by his Irish grandfather. He was sent to England for an
education and there met a young opera singer named Lucinda. She was singing the female
lead in Thomas Rowe's favorite opera, Maritana. The two fell madly in love and
planned to elope and spend their lives in a pink castle by the sea.
was not to be. Lucinda's parents intervened and, on the day they were to depart for
the United States, kept Lucinda secreted away. The brokenhearted young Rowe had no choice.
He had to return home as his guardian required, but he never forgot his first love. He
wrote to her at first, but the letters came back unopened.
One of the lobbies in the Don CeSar
the ensuing years, Thomas became a wealthy man. Forced by ill health, he moved to Florida.
It was there that he bought 80 acres of an island on the shores of Tampa destined to
become St Petersburg Beach. He had since married another woman, but his heart still
yearned for the dream he had shared with his Lucinda. Now, a man of 42, he had the
location and the means to build what he had promised his first love as a young student.
He divided the acres of his island paradise into tracts and sold lots. The streets were
named for characters and places in Maritana. But the crowning jewel in his kingdom
by the sea was the 10-story Moorish Mediterranean pink hotel. It could only be called the
"Don Cesar." In the sunroom on the ground floor, Rowe placed the fountain he had
once promised to Lucinda. A winged angel poured water from a vase into a pond below
encircled by swans.
setting was gorgeous, the location was perfect, but the timing was terrible. The Don
opened on January 16, 1928, with a scene that would have fit an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
However when the stock market crashed in October 1929, the reverberation was destined to
shake even the 10-foot-thick walls of Rowe's dream hotel.
Plaque honoring Tomas Rowe in the Don CeSar
receivership, hurricanes and prohibition, Rowe managed to hang on to his management of the
hotel. Finally, he received a note from his lost love. Lucinda wrote on her deathbed to
her beloved, "Time is infinite. I wait for you by our fountain . . . to share our
timeless love, our destiny is time." Rowe died in the hotel on May 5, 1940. On his
deathbed, he attempted to will the hotel to the staff. However, his doctors stated he was
too ill to make a rational decision. His estranged wife, Mary, inherited it instead and
took over the management. The hotel declined.
the war years, the army purchased it. It became a hospital, a convalescent center, a
veteran's administration office, and finally a derelict almost ready for the
demolition ball. During the time of government ownership, its angel fountain was removed
and the floor tiled over. Why? Probably the same reason they painted it Government Issue
in the 70s, it was rescued and on its way to being a world-class hotel again. It was
at this time that Thomas Rowe and his ladylove, Lucinda, began to be sighted by guests and
hotel passed through several hands and a few restorations, but the two spirits still seem
to be there. They have been joined by some from the era when the building was used as a
who worked with him reported smelling a foul odor like his cigarettes. Thomas had asthma
and had to smoke certain cigarettes the doctors prescribed that contained a medicine that
got to his lungs. They had a particularly nasty smell.
Owen, Director of Guest Services, recounted when the sightings began in earnest. "It
was during the renovation. Workmen would ask, Who was that white-haired man asking
questions about the renovation?' Some of the workers refused to work here because of
him. He never appeared as a wraith. It was always as a normal man."
was one time he appeared to a journalist. It was not to give an interview but to help
prevent tragedy. Susan struggled to recall the exact details, but memory of the main
incident was sharp. "She was a writer for, I think, Bride Magazine. They were
doing an article about weddings here. The next morning she came down and asked. Do
you have a ghost here?' The answer, of course, was yes, why?'
writer continued, Last night in bed, a man appeared to me and said, "Do not let
her go on the ledge."' We asked what he looked like. The journalist made a
sketch of the man and he bore a striking resemblance to Thomas Rowe. No one thought any
more of it until a few days later when her photographer was doing a layout with the writer
and a model on the rooftop. The rooftop there is actually a patio for the penthouse. The
photographer wanted the model to get up on the ledge and get a shot of her. When he said
ledge,' bells went off in the writer's head. She stopped the shoot, and
when they examined the ledge they found bits of crumbled mortar on top. Had the model
stepped there she might have lost her balance and fallen."
has had personal experiences with him. She has never seen him, but she still finds little
things happening that are unexplainable. "They only seem to happen to me when I am
really rushing around doing something for a guest. For instance, the elevators are slow in
the building. Usually I stand there and twiddle my thumbs while I count as the light tells
the floors, 10, 9, 8 and so on. But if someone has forgotten something and I am rushing to
get it back to him, inevitably, the elevator door opens just as I approach. No buttons
pushed! No waiting! It is just there when I need it."
receptionist who had come from Pennsylvania was temporally staying in the hotel. She and
her husband were on the beach, and she looked up and saw a man in a white linen suit and a
Panama hat. She called to her husband, "Look, that looks like Panama Jack." Her
husband didn't see the man. She just thought he must have disappeared behind the
bushes and gave it no more thought until she was doing her orientation and spotted a
picture of Thomas Rowe.
seems to be very protective of "his" hotel still. Once when a bride's
mother was very upset and blaming the hotel for just about everything, she was raving at
the florist in the hotel. Suddenly all the shelves in the refrigerators holding flower
displays came crashing down. That not only silenced the lady but also sent her scuttling
place Thomas Rowe shows himself frequently is in the kitchen. Workers will suddenly see a
face in one of the freezers, and then it will be gone as fast as it appeared.
people have reported seeing a man and woman in period clothing walking around near where
the original fountain was. Is it possible that Thomas and Lucinda do in fact "share
our timeless love?"
article is an excerpt from my book, Finding Florida's Phantoms. If you enjoyed it
you would love that book and my two other ghostly travel books, Hosts With Ghosts:
Haunted Historic Hotels in the Southeast and Georgia's Ghostly Getaways.