CLEARWATER — When it opened its doors in 1939, the brand-new white building was ahead of its time. A little like a church, a little like a private home, the Moss Funeral Home became the first structure in the Clearwater area designed specifically as a funeral home, according to Moss-Feaster Funeral Home and Cremation Services, the company's name since 1985.
For more than 70 years, the anchor of one of the Tampa Bay area's oldest funeral chains stood proud at 802 N Fort Harrison Blvd., a kind of holy customs office for the social elite on their way to the next life.
That was then.
On Monday, the old funeral home — known affectionately to employees as "The Fort" — was demolished. With four other locations in Pinellas County, Moss-Feaster closed the home three years ago after the owners decided it was too costly to maintain.
"This is the passing of an era," said Rick Chesler, 59, a Moss-Feaster funeral director since 1980. Behind him, the jaws of a Caterpillar methodically bit into what was left of the home.
Jack Moss founded Moss Funeral Home in 1932 a few blocks away, at 811 N Fort Harrison. His wife, Ann, one of the first female funeral directors in Florida, worked in tandem with him. They soon outgrew the site.
The couple built the new home with a basement that would house the ambulance service they ran for decades and, later, a crematory. The Mosses added a second story to part of the house, with a distinctive hip roof. Staffers lived there and were on call 24-7.
The home's location caught the attention of wealthy residents driving to waterfront homes or coming home from Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church.
"It kind of surprises you that N Fort Harrison was a good address in the old days," said Mike Sanders, 67, a historian of Clearwater.
Jack Moss became known as a heavy hitter for charities, engendering goodwill.
"The Moss family and the funeral home they had, it was just an outstanding contribution to funeral service in this state," said John S. Rhodes III, 65, a third-generation funeral director and former owner.
Moss died in 1974, leaving the business to partners. Moss Funeral Home was acquired by Houston-based Service Corporation International in 1977, Chesler said. SCI bought Feaster Memorial Homes in 1984; Moss-Feaster was created the next year.
As other locations sprang up, the Fort held its own among staffers for its cachet as the real thing, the original article.
It also was the most somber.
"You'd walk in, it was dark," said Joseph Magaddino, a 20-year Moss-Feaster funeral director. "You'd hear church music."
Magaddino now serves as the location manager for a Moss-Feaster home on Indian Rocks Road in Largo. He stood Monday in his "celebration gathering room" amid banquet-sized tables and chairs. Moss-Feaster dispensed with pews about four years ago, in keeping with a wider movement to adapt services to the needs of customers.
"Today's society of baby boomers now, they are more educated," Magaddino said. "They want more options, and they want to get to the point."
The tables were still draped with wide swaths of blue paper, recently accompanied by red doilies for the memorial of a Chicago Cubs fan. Themed memorial services emphasizing celebration are on the upswing, Magaddino said.
A small room full of urns reflects Americans' growing preference for cremation, a less costly option that is affecting funeral homes' bottom lines.
"To get into the funeral business today," Rhodes said, "you've got to jump-start to high volume, low revenue."
SCI, Moss-Feaster's corporate parent and by far the country's largest funeral and burial provider, owned 1,437 funeral homes in 2012, according to Funeral Service Insider. Earlier this year, it announced a $1.4-billion deal to buy its next-largest competitor, which had 217 locations.
It's a climate that might not have suited Jack and Ann Moss. On Monday, Chesler watched as the Caterpillar swatted down the hip roof of the Fort.
"It brings a tear to your eye," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.