CLEARWATER — Some people called it "the grate."
It was a huge aluminum canopy that covered the original brick facade and second-story windows of the Brown Brothers building downtown.
Now the grate is gone, removed by the building's owner, who intends to renovate the historic structure in the hopes of drawing more restaurants and offices into it.
The yellow brick building at 615-621 Cleveland Street was constructed in the mid 1920s. The metal sheathing was added during a 1960s remodeling.
"It must have been a lot of work to put it up. It was a lot of work to take it down," said Terry Tsafatinos, a real estate investor who has owned the building for seven years. "At that time, they must have wanted a more modern-looking building. But it has nice architectural details that should not be covered up."
During the building's heyday, it was the location of the Brown Brothers Dairy Store restaurant, a popular downtown spot. Back in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, people who lived or worked downtown would stop in at Brown's for sandwiches and hot lunch plates. Families would come for its "world famous hot fudge sundae."
Two brothers, the late Doug and Tom Brown, opened the restaurant in 1935 and sold it in 1973. During the 1960s remodeling, the two disagreed over whether to install the metal canopy, according to Doug Brown's daughter, Sarah Brown Caudell.
"If my dad was still alive, he'd be saying, 'Hallelujah!' He never wanted to do the aluminum work to start with," Caudell said. "In the early '60s, the city fathers wanted downtown to be modernized. My dad always hated the aluminum."
Now that the building's current owner has uncovered the bricks that were hidden behind the metal, he plans to resume work within a couple of weeks. Tsafatinos intends to replace the second-floor windows, remove the portable air conditioning units and replenish the mortar between the bricks.
On the ground floor, he'd like to redo the building's four storefronts. Only two are occupied, by the Cleveland Street Cafe and the Downtown Newsstand.
Tsafatinos will be applying for a city grant to help pay for the work.
Trying to revitalize downtown, Clearwater is offering incentives to property owners to make their buildings' facades more attractive. Owners are eligible for matching grants of up to $10,000 and matching zero-interest loans of up to $35,000 that don't have to be repaid until the property is sold.
The first person to get one of the grants was the owner of the old Telephone building at the northwest corner of Cleveland Street and Garden Avenue. Owner Jon Heneghan peeled away a concrete facade to reveal the original red brick fronting that a former mayor built in 1914. A Dunkin' Donuts recently opened there.
Tapping into downtown Clearwater's history helps bolster the city's strategy of turning the Cleveland Street district into a destination for restaurants and retail, said Geri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's economic development director.
"People are looking for authenticity, and real downtowns capture that," she said. "In other places, they're trying to create old-style main streets. But that's already here. We just have to spruce it up.
"We have these great bones, with buildings like this that show a connection to the past."
As for Tsafatinos, he envisions a row of small ethnic restaurants moving into his building someday — although neither of his current tenants particularly wants to move.
It remains to be seen whether that will ever be an issue. It's too early for Tsafatinos to have any definite future tenants, and a couple of restaurants on the same block recently closed.
"I believe downtown is going to be a good place sooner or later," Tsafatinos said. "I believe this building is going to be reborn."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.