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Historic building may have a new future

A Key West businessman, whose resume includes entertaining in the Catskills and writing a party book, quietly bought a landmark building in the heart of downtown Clearwater last month for $1.2-million.

Len Chetkin, who amassed a fortune in real estate, interior design and home furnishing, purchased the historic, two-story, 12,000-square-foot purple and green building on the northwest corner of Cleveland Street and Fort Harrison Avenue.

The building, now closed, most recently was owned by Les Spits, who used it as a gallery to sell contemporary European furniture for nearly a decade, calling the business Mooko International.

"They (the Chetkins) bought it literally out of emotion," said Bill Witter, a real estate executive with Realty Executives. "We were sitting at Starbucks and (Emmy Chetkin) looked across the street at it and said, "I want it.' "

Witter said the couple are looking at Clearwater as an opportunity.

"They look at it like Key West was 25 years ago," Witter said. "They are investing for the future."

The Chetkins did not respond to interview requests this week.

Chetkin, 74, a New York native, founded a lucrative Key West store called Carpet and Casuals on Duval Street in the mid 1960s.

He is also the author of Guess Who's Jewish?, a light-hearted guessing game which lists famous Jewish actors, sports figures, comedians and other entertainers such as Michael Landon, Kirk Douglas and Goldie Hawn.

But, according to numerous newspaper stories written about Chetkin, his heart was always in entertaining. He first sang at his boyhood synagogue in Newark, N.J., and later at a Catskills resort.

After a stint in the Army, he formed a band with his first wife and traveled the country performing.

The band broke up in Key West, and Chetkin got a job at Sears before starting his own shop.

Then, according to a 1983 Miami Herald report, Chetkin, still wanting stardom, paid $20,000 to a team including a few public relations agents, an ensemble and a singing coach. They prepared him to make his debut in New York's Downing Square Supper Club where he sang On a Wonderful Day Like Today.

Witter said the couple do not plan to move to Clearwater and is "just evaluating" what to do with the building, which may need a new roof.

"They'd like to put a restaurant there," Witter said. "There has been some mention of an ice cream shop. (They may have) loft apartments upstairs with retail (space) on the first floor. I don't know much about their plans."

Witter said the city would like the couple to "bring it back to its original look and get the clock working."

The building has been around since about 1910, according to Mike Sanders, a local historian. Back then, it housed the People's Bank and "had a plain, New Orleans wrought-iron" look.

In 1926, the First National Bank of Clearwater bought it and redesigned it in a Mediterranean revival style.

"In the late 1950s it was modernized like it is today, with the neat lines and Tiffany clock," Sanders said.

The clock became a landmark.

From about 1961 to the mid 1970s, it was Wolf Brothers, a fine men's clothing store, "the nicest men's shop in Clearwater, besides Webb's men's store," Sanders said. In the late 1970s, it became John Baldwin women's clothing store.

When Spits bought it, "he fixed it up pretty nice," said Witter, giving it a modern appearance.

R. Nathan Hightower, Spits' attorney, said he thinks Spits and his wife, Barbara Newman, "are trying to move on to a new phase in their life."

"They noticed more of their sales were over the Internet and they didn't need a showroom," Hightower said. "I think they will continue with that portion of the business."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Eileen Schulte can be reached at 445-4153 or

The Mooko International building on the northwest corner of Cleveland Street and Fort Harrison Avenue in downtown Clearwater was sold for $1.2-million.