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The Don CeSar cheated death decades ago; the pandemic is a new wrinkle in its history

The Don CeSar Hotel.

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By SARA DINATALE | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: August 20, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The pandemic is far from the worst thing to happen to the Don CeSar.

The massive Mediterranean style hotel survived the Great Depression and, later, just barely staved off destruction. It went from luxury hotel to military hospital, government office to derelict eyesore.

It’s not that the pandemic hasn’t affected the grand hotel, it is just that so much of the hotel’s 92-year history is wrapped up in how it has cheated death more than a couple of times. This is just the next chapter.

Like every hotel this spring, the Don had to furlough almost its entire staff. There were points in March and April that occupancy reached all-time lows, as a skeleton crew maintained the empty sprawling pink palace. But on a recent weekend guests were scattered across the hotel’s private beach in small clusters spread at least 6 feet apart. Others lounged poolside or drank at the outdoor bar.

The Don isn’t booming, or even nearly back to normal. But it is sustaining itself, moving ahead with its third phase of its massive renovation plans at a time other hotels are facing foreclosures. Its operators count themselves lucky.

It’s surviving thanks to a loyal fan base.

“The community came back and spent their money at the property and continues to be committed to this place,” said the hotel’s sales and marketing director, Todd Gherke. “It’s no different than when it was going to be demolished and people came back.”

In the 70s, when the crumbling former hotel was slated to be torn down, it was locals who stepped in to petition that it be restored and saved. During COVID-19, it is Floridians again coming to the destination’s rescue.

Some weekends have been booked nearly solid, Gherke said, though the week days are still slow. The number of rooms the Don has open is also limited by roughly a third as the hotel moves through renovating each of its 279 rooms — something it says will be complete by Thanksgiving. Gherke said though the makeover during a pandemic is coincidental timing, the lower demand on rooms has made it the perfect time to overhaul them.

The hotel’s visitor numbers may not rival its usual summer rush, but for 2020 there are more guests than any hotelier could ask for. Most rooms are booked a week ahead, if that.

“When we all sat down in March and April, what we said we were gong to do was nothing,” Gherke said, “What we have been able to do exceeds expectations.”

For Odessa resident Michael DeGenito, the Don was the perfect staycation spot to celebrate his 60th birthday. He and his wife Connie lounged poolside Wednesday afternoon, soaking in their last hours at the resort before trudging back over the bridge.

“We were nervous to come at first,” Connie said, referring to the virus, “but I’m so glad we did.”

She was comforted by all the outdoor seating, hand sanitizing stations and signs requiring mask use indoors. The New Jersey transplants have lived in Tampa Bay the last two decades. So while this wasn’t their first stay at the Don, it had been their first in a few years.

The two can’t imagine St. Pete Beach without it. Most locals and regular visitors can’t. The hulking landmark leaves an impression on everyone who sees it, situated as it is next to neighborhoods of much smaller single-family homes.

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Thomas Rowe, a British-born architect, developed the Don Cesar to anchor what he hoped would one day become Florida’s own Mediterranean style community. But the Great Depression squashed that hope. Rowe was lucky his hotel was able to open at all.

“The Great Depression hit Florida three years before it hit anybody else,” said local historian and University of South Florida professor Raymond Arsenault. “The big real estate bubble burst.”

So new hotels like the Don CeSar, which opened in 1928, started off on troubled ground. It was a three-year deal with the New York Yankees to house its baseball players during spring training that allowed the hotel to survive through the depression and attract rich and famous visitors through the Jazz Age.

After just 12 years with his dream hotel, Rowe dropped dead in the lobby and the pink castle went to his estranged wife. It limped along under her management until the U.S. government purchased it during World War II. In 1942, it reopened as a military hospital.

After the war ended, the old hotel became a veteran services administration building — dashing most people’s hopes of it ever being restored to the lavish hotel Rowe intended. It remained a government building until veterans services vacated it in 1969. It was derelict and covered in graffiti.

“A lot of people assumed you really couldn’t bring it back to being a grand hotel,” Arsenault. said. “It was like a big eyesore at the north end of Pass-a-Grille.”

Then entered the late June Hurley Young, of the TV show Romper Room. Her public crusade and the passion of other preservationists kept the Don from being leveled. A developer was able to take over the property, restore it and open it as a hotel in November 1973.

The Don’s owners have changed hands a few times since then. In 2017 it was purchased by current owners, Host Hotels & Resorts.

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It’s at that point the latest round of renovations began. Gherke said the goal of the hotel’s latest overhaul is to bring it back to its 1920s roots with heavy Art Deco and classic Havana influences. Its new rooms rooms are modern but with a retro flare.

Already, the hotelier has moved the location of its lobby bar and redesigned it with bold brass accents. Uncle Andy’s ice cream parlor has been moved to the lower retail level. The outdoor bridge leading to the hotel’s lobby is also being rebuilt, something the hotel decided to start earlier than planned when hotel traffic was low. An external elevator climbs up to the top story so workers can strip out old furniture and bring up new Italian tiles.

Soon, a new two-story outdoor bar will begin to take shape and there are plans for a new yet-to-be announced restaurant concept.

“It all seems for the better,” Michael DeGenito said while sitting on a pink-and-white striped Don towel, “It was definitely time.”

He expects most of the renovations to add to a spot that’s already special to him and his wife — a spot the couple agreed they’re thankful to have as an escape in their own backyard, pandemic or not.

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
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