ST. PETERSBURG — William Bowman Jr. paid $460,000 for a dilapidated shell of a building.
The Don CeSar, once the pink highlight of St. Pete Beach, had dwindled to a shadow of itself over the years. The windows were cracked, the paint peeling. There was no furniture, no elevator. Some floors were filled with sewage gas.
But Mr. Bowman only saw potential.
"The minute he saw it he wanted it," said June Hurley Young, Mr. Bowman's girlfriend, and a preservationist who helped lead the restoration charge in 1973. "He was just a real genius, and he wanted it. It was a castle, and he was a prince kind of person."
Mr. Bowman died Tuesday after battling a rare endocrine cancer. He was 83.
He developed an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. He grew up poor, the son of a West Virginia coal miner. He operated an elevator shaft in a coal mine, earning enough money to buy chicken for his family. He installed car radios. He hatched eggs and sold pet chicks for 25 cents. He helped his mother sell butter. He made and sold handmade lawn ornaments.
"He was just really an all-around American boy," said his son, William Bowman III. "It was that type of Tom Sawyer thing."
During World War II, he served with the Flying Tigers in China and Burma, flying missions as a ball-turret gunner. When he returned, he went to college and began working in the real estate division of Cities Service Co. and opened hotels on the side. He built dozens of Holiday Inns, La Quinta Inns and other hotels, including the St. Pete Beach Hilton.
The Don CeSar was his most notable feat. He spent months shoveling out debris, repairing it floor-by-floor, pane-by-pane. He even restored the lobby's original, abandoned fountain.
But two years after bringing the hotel back to glory, Mr. Bowman lost it amid financial struggles. He told the St. Petersburg Times that the restoration came in under budget, but the recession, Red Tide, gas shortage, sharks and a flu epidemic kept customers away. He tried to take it in stride.
"He realized that success is not measured by money," said his son. "It's measured by ups and downs and experience and reality."
He eventually moved to Georgia and taught Sunday school before returning home to St. Petersburg for the end of his life. He avoided the Don CeSar — it was painful. But in 2003, he decided to make an exception.
He attended the hotel's 75th anniversary festivities, his son said. He was nervous, but everyone accepted him. Pleased, he sat around sharing stories of the glory days.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.