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 Islands Information

Place: St. Petersburg Florida

Haunting Love
Photo and Story by Kathleen Walls - American Roads Travel Magazine

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The exterior of the Don CeSar

For 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.

He 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.

It 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.

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One of the lobbies in the Don CeSar

Throughout 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.

The 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.

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Plaque honoring Tomas Rowe in the Don CeSar


Through 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.

During 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 Green.

Then 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 staff alike.

The 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 hospital also.

People 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.

Susan 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.”

There 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?’

“The 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.”

Susan 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.”

One 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.

Thomas 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 away.

Another 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.

Many 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?”

This 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.

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.