The Palace That Love Built

The legendary Pink Palace.

Today I found myself in the backyard painting studio of one of my favorite artists, Lynne Polley of Polley Creates It’s always a good day when I get to sit amidst the canvases and the creeping bougainvilleas and discuss creative ways to see the world. This latest project found us talking travel with Elizabeth Schneider-Peele, a concierge travel specialist with Global Medallion. I’ll be writing video scripts for her ultra high-end Florida tours. During the course of our discussion, Elizabeth asked me to name some of my favorite ‘secret’ Florida destinations or tell a little-known story of the state’s past — basically the stuff only us locals would know. Well, that got me to thinking about a tale I’d heard a long time ago and a special place known as the “Pink Palace.”

The Don Cesar is a luxury hotel on the sands of St. Pete Beach. It’s revered for white-glove service, pristine beaches and an iconic salmon-colored facade; but what many don’t know is the story behind the pretty exterior, a haunting legend of love and loss.

It began in the early 1920s when a young man named Thomas Rowe met a Spanish opera star named Lucinda while studying in England. The pair fell quickly in love and would dash off for clandestine meetings at a secret fountain known only to the two of them. To disguise their tryst, the couple referred to each other as Maritana and Don Cesar, the names of the lead characters in the opera she was starring in the night they met. But when Lucinda’s parents discovered the relationship, they whisked the girl back to Spain and Thomas was forced to return to America heartbroken. His letters would come back unopened, and in the end the only communication he would ever receive was a news clipping of her death accompanied by a note which simply read: “My beloved Don Cesar.”

In 1925 Thomas made his way to Florida and began what would be his life’s work, the “Pink Palace.” A tribute to Lucinda, the Don CeSar features a lobby courtyard and fountain which are exact replicas of the spot where the couple had met in London. The towering Spanish castle on the sea was Thomas’ eternal testament to his lost love.

Since his passing, staff and guests of the hotel have reported seeing a gentleman in an old-fashioned Panama hat and a white summer suit strolling the grounds. However, whenever he is approached, he quickly disappears. There are reports of mysterious knockings on the doors of the fifth floor where Thomas once lived, doors swinging open by themselves whenever a staff member approaches with a heavy load (a tribute to Thomas’ legendary hospitality) and even sightings of a young couple dressed in a white suit and a traditional Spanish peasant dress.

I can’t say if the stories are true, but I’d like to believe they are. I guess it really doesn’t matter. The Pink Palace remains one of Florida’s true treasures: a pampered playground that has hosted everyone from Presidents to gangsters to stars of the silver screen. In the end our continued infatuation with this tribute to old-world glamour and timeless luxury isn’t so hard to understand — after all, she was and is…a labor of love.

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