- Associated Press - Friday, December 9, 2011

CLEARWATER, FLA. (AP) - The original Hooters was a ramshackle, dove-gray, two-story building perched on a stretch of road between Tampa and Clearwater Beach.

Like the chain’s slogan, it was “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” _ and it launched a wildly popular restaurant chain that now boasts 487 locations around the world. For 28 years, it has 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 customers.

Some would say it’s blasphemy in a state accused of constantly 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, 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 has been to 15, 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.”

Renovation plans call for an expanded kitchen and bar _ 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 St. Petersburg, whose office is located in a rare late-1800s Dutch Colonial building in downtown. “Time anoints, but also destroys.”

And while the old Hooters may 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, he said.

Mormino said that 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 for 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.

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