December 9, 2011 10:59:00 AM
By TAMARA LUSH
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The original Hooters was a ramshackle, dove-gray, two-story building perched on a stretch of road between Tampa and Clearwater Beach.
Similar to the chain's slogan, it was unrefined, tacky, yet delightful -- and it launched a wildly popular restaurant chain that now boasts 487 locations around the world. For 28 years, it's been a magnet for folks who like chicken wings, pretty waitresses in tight clothes and cold beer (although probably not in that order).
Recently, Hooters management announced that the building is "undergoing a full-scale remodeling." Most of the edifice was torn down and construction crews are expanding the footprint to accommodate more beer-drinking, wing-loving customers.
Some would say it's blasphemy in a state that's been accused of demolishing the past in favor of building the shiny, new future.
Should the demise of the Original Hooters be mourned? Could a bar where scantily clad women serve clams and wings and beer ever truly be a cultural touchstone?
Absolutely, says Bay Ragni, a Hooters fan from Aston, Pa. It's Ragni's life goal to visit every Hooters in the world. So far, he's been to 15 of them, four on one recent vacation. He jokes with his wife that they should rent an RV and drive to every Hooters, collecting memorabilia along the way.
But Ragni is disappointed that he won't be able to visit the very first Hooters in its original glory.
"The original one would be like going to the Mecca of Hooters," Ragni said. "I would definitely want to still come visit it but it won't be the same. Now that they're changing it, it takes away a little of the originality of it."
Plans call for an expanded kitchen and bar area -- originally, the restaurant served only beer and wine -- and a Hooters museum, said Neil Kiefer, president and CEO of Hooters Management Corp.
"Artifacts, a timeline, menus, original uniforms," said Kiefer, who was overseeing the construction on a recent balmy Florida winter day. Men in hard hats tramped in and out of the shell of the building, while laminated drink specials cards with smiling Hooters Girls lay stacked on a wooden porch rail.
Local historic preservationists also question whether the structure should have been dramatically revamped, while saying that they're not surprised it was.
"Growth is the greatest enemy of historic buildings," said Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida whose office is in a rare late-1800s Dutch Colonial building in downtown St. Petersburg. "Time anoints but also destroys."
And while the old Hooters might not have been much to look at, "our frame of reference is always changing," he said. Ranch-style homes and 1950s architecture are undergoing a popular revival. Maybe someone in the future would have wanted to see the faux-Key West-style of the original Hooters.
Mormino said Hooters plays into what he calls "the Florida Dream:" sun, sand, palm trees, beautiful girls, eternal youth, second chances.
Even the founders of Hooters weren't sure if their restaurant would last, much less spawn such a sexy legacy; so many other eateries had failed in that location that they built a small "graveyard" near the front door with tombstones naming the prior businesses.
But it was a success: patrons seemed to go wild over the simple concept of beer, wings and waitresses in orange running shorts.
So much so that the founders sold the chain's trademark to another company that kept the iconic Hooters name -- although the founders still own the original Clearwater Hooters and other Florida locations.
Mormino and his USF history colleague Ray Arsenault are mourning the fact that Hooters recently bought the location of another restaurant in St. Petersburg, some 15 miles south of the original location. There, Hooters replaced a longtime Spanish eatery called Pepin. The Mediterranean-revival building was replaced this fall with a modern-looking structure graced with the bright orange "Hooters" sign atop the building.
"For it to be a Hooters was something of an affront," Arsenault said. "I don't like it. I feel like we've lost something."
While Florida might not have 15th-century Renaissance architecture like Italy, and while even the state's copies of Mediterranean architecture are being torn down to make way for chain restaurants, Americans fondly embrace their icons, however mass-produced or tacky. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, says Douglas Astolfi, a history professor at St. Leo University, a school about an hour north of the original Hooters.
"Hooters speaks to who we are," said Astolfi, pointing out that the restaurant's aesthetic of big breasts, big beers and sports captures a modern America, especially the America that emerged in the early 1980s.
"In the 20th century we built palaces to our culture. They're not churches, they're not monuments, but they're monuments to our culture," he said. "There's nothing more schlock in our culture than Disney or McDonald's or Hooters, but all of those things personify an American culture that exists."
Astolfi just returned to his Florida home from a visit to Italy. He marvels at how transient, new and egalitarian American culture is, compared to the rich history of Italy, where "highbrow culture" was traditionally available only to the educated upper classes.
"Popular culture, whether it's Hooters or Disney, can be owned by anyone. It can be enjoyed by anyone," he said, adding that there is now a Hooters across the street from Carnegie Hall in New York City. "Why isn't it justifiable to have this as our memory? It doesn't make us less, it makes us different."
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