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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 colleague Ray Arsenault are mourning the fact that Hooters recently tore down a longtime Spanish eatery called Pepin about 15 miles away. 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 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 our 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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Associated Press Writer Tamara Lush can be reached at https://twitter.com/TamaraLush