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Don CeSar hotel gets a major makeover, name change

ST. PETE BEACH

It's not the fountain. It's not even the replica of the fountain. It may be a substitute for the replica of yet another fountain in London where the builder of the Don CeSar supposedly met his true love and inspiration for his pink palace by the sea. So perhaps it's the fountain twice removed.

In any case, the fountain on the Don's fifth floor outside the King Charles ballroom has been taken out as part of a $7 million renovation that includes a name change and a departure from its tropical decor. The hotel is now officially called the Loews Don CeSar Hotel.

"Oh, no. That's a shame the fountain is gone," said Deborah Frethem, a Tampa Bay Ghost Tours guide who leads groups through the 83-year-old hotel. She regularly shares the legend of the hotel's builder, Thomas Rowe, and his intense love for a Spanish opera singer named Lucinda. There are stories of guests and employees who have seen their ghosts lingering by the fountain. "But I'm sure Thomas and Lucinda will find somewhere else to meet."

Rowe completed the Don CeSar in 1928 as a tribute to Lucinda. Supposedly he saw her in the opera Maritana, fell in love and the two met regularly after her performances at an ornate fountain near the Royal Opera House. Their plans to elope were foiled by her parents. Some years later, Rowe named his hotel after a character in that opera and built a fountain in the lobby that was a replica of the one in London.

That fountain was destroyed when the government bought the hotel and converted it to an Army hospital in the 1940s. Enter William Bowman Jr. He paid $460,000 for the dilapidated Don CeSar in 1972 and restored it to grandeur, including the lobby fountain. It was then that a note written by a former superintendent who was ordered to demolish the fountain in the '40s was found under the lobby floor. He lamented that a "spot of beauty" was destroyed because some thought it got in the way of pedestrian traffic.

In subsequent ownership after Bowman lost the hotel during financial struggles, the lobby fountain was again removed and another fountain was built on the fifth floor. Once again it seems it was an impediment to pedestrian traffic.

"For all the weddings we do upstairs, the fountain was something that kind of got in the way when trying to host receptions," Don CeSar general manager John Marks said. "It didn't work very well any longer. It wasn't the kind of thing you could fix. It was tired. We had some odor-related issues from pipes."

June Hurley Young, a historian who led the charge to save the Don CeSar in the 1970s, has written a history of the hotel. She believes there was much history and sentiment tied to the lobby fountain but not the one on the fifth floor.

"That fountain was not significant," she said. "The one in the lobby was (Bowman's) answer to the note they found under the floor. It was destroyed when they put in the grand staircase."

You'll soon see many more changes at the landmark hotel.

A major makeover of the lobby, lobby bar and Sea Porch restaurant should be done by next month. All of the 277 guest rooms will have new furniture, carpet, drapes and bedding by January. Instead of its current tropical, beach decor the hotel is going with a cleaner, sleeker, hipper look to appeal to the younger market.

"We've created a much more elegant and contemporary environment," Marks said. "We're moving forward … to meet the demands and expectations of new generations of future Loews Don CeSar guests."

The general age range of Don CeSar guests is 30 to 60. But with more than 300 weddings a year on the property, customers are skewing to the younger side. Many return regularly to celebrate anniversaries.

Though still not at the sales levels it reached in 2006 or 2007, 2011 has been better than last year and 2010 was better than 2009, Marks said.

Don't get your heart set on buying a palm tree pillow or green-and-white-striped wing chair at a chaotic hotel tag sale. The furnishings that get replaced will go to a furniture liquidation company.

News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@sptimes.com.

Don CeSar hotel gets a major makeover, name change 09/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 17, 2011 4:31am]
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