The city's two biggest history buffs watched with curiosity Wednesday as a 99-year-old building downtown was demolished.
The Clearwater Evening Sun building, more recently known as the Pat Lokey building, has stood at the southeast corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue since 1914. It is being torn down this week and next week to make way for the upcoming renovation and expansion of the Capitol Theatre next door.
Mike Sanders and Bill Wallace, who have both served as president of the Clearwater Historical Society, stood across the street as a backhoe tore through brick, wood and plaster.
They weren't there to protest the demolition of the long, skinny building at 401 Cleveland St. Instead, they wanted to see if any artifacts of historical significance should be salvaged from the wreckage.
Sanders, a local historian, real estate agent and author of Clearwater: A Pictorial History, was particularly interested in a "masthead" that was once mounted on the front of the original brick structure. It can be seen in old photographs.
He believed it said Clearwater Evening Sun — the name of the building's first tenant, a newspaper. But the masthead, if it even still existed, had long been hidden under a layer of stucco.
Sanders had previously saved artifacts from other historic Clearwater buildings, including the original "Bank of Clearwater" stone header from the 1918 building at 500 Cleveland St. that's now owned by the Church of Scientology.
Sanders didn't oppose the demolition of the Clearwater Evening Sun building because it had been so dramatically altered over the past 99 years that he believed it could never be restored to its original facade.
Also, like the city's government, he has high hopes for the renovation of the 92-year-old Capitol Theatre, which he believes has significantly more historic value. The theater has been a community gathering spot since the 1920s.
"I doubt it could be restored," Sanders said of the Evening Sun building. "The old Capitol captures more of the imagination and could be a catalyst for revitalizing downtown."
The $7 million Capitol renovation will enlarge the theater, replacing two smaller buildings on either side of it, and expanding the seating from 485 to nearly 750. The theatre will close on March 25 and is slated to reopen in October, said Jeffrey Hartzog, operations director for Ruth Eckerd Hall, which runs the city-owned Capitol. That's why the neighboring building is being razed.
"The building is coming down pretty quick," Hartzog said.
A major complication is that the Evening Sun building shared an exterior wall with the Capitol next door. Demolition crews had to cut into the brick wall and separate it from the Evening Sun building's ceilings and floors.
"We have to be very careful in how we demolish that building," said Gus Pardo, a project manager for Creative Contractors, which is doing the Capitol renovation.
Meanwhile, as they waited for the front of the building to come down, the two historians passed the time looking at photos of Cleveland Street from nearly a century ago. The land along Clearwater Harbor attracted early settlers and was the core of Clearwater when it became a city in 1915.
Sanders and Wallace noted that the Evening Sun building was one of a series of brick structures that rose up after a 1910 fire wiped out a block of wooden buildings downtown. Others include the Coachman Building at 503 Cleveland, built in 1917, and the old Telephone building at 534 Cleveland, built in 1914.
That fire prompted Clearwater to create its first fire department, which was housed just off Cleveland on N Fort Harrison Avenue.
In the end, as the front of Evening Sun building came down Wednesday afternoon, there was no masthead to be found.
"All they found were bricks," Sanders said. "We gave it a good shot."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.