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    Landmark Belleair Garage now soot, dangling boards

    The owners of what some estimate to be a 75-year-old garage don't know what they will do.

    By CHRIS TISCH
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 5, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- For the first time in 83 years, there were no sounds of auto repair at the Belleair Garage on Friday.

    No whirring drills. No clanging wrenches. No hissing hydraulics.

    The only sound was the charred building creaking against the cold wind. A frail skeleton of blackened beams and boards dangled overhead. Sooted tools hung from their hooks. A 1972 Lincoln, which was once green, sat black and crippled in a coffin of ash.

    The Belleair Garage, considered by many to be a landmark, burned to the ground Thursday night. About 35 firefighters brought the roaring blaze under control in about 35 minutes, but that was all the time the fire needed to consume the structure's old wood.

    Witnesses said the flames poked through the roof and swallowed the building in minutes. Fire department officials said they have no indications of what caused the blaze.

    On Friday morning, owners James and Karen King sat in their pick-up outside the destroyed building.

    James King said he always dreamed of having his own shop. He bought the place in 1997. His wife worked the books. He fixed transmissions and hired another guy to help with other repairs.

    "It was just a ma-and-pa shop," James King said.

    Before that, the business was owned by Roy and Jean Roberson, who bought the business in the late 1950s. Like King 50 years later, Mr. Roberson also had dreamed of owning his own shop.

    For four decades the Robersons leaned on the garage for their livelihoods. Roy was known as the best transmission man in Clearwater.

    Jean raised their three kids at home. Once they were in junior high, she came to work there, too.

    Their oldest son, Cal, was there after school every day and on Saturdays "from the time he could pick up a wrench," Mrs. Roberson says.

    The Robersons bought the business from Roy Olds, who had owned the garage at least since 1926. It was a garage before that, and some claim it was carriage house. The garage was built in 1918.

    A half-century later, the Robersons knew fire was a potential danger.

    "We knew that if it got started, you just better find some way out of there in a hurry, because it was so old," she said.

    Mrs. Roberson, now 68, said she went to look at the building Friday. It was like losing a member of the family.

    "I was so sad to hear it had to end that way," she said. "It was pretty hard to look at. It was like a part of your family for all those many years."

    The Kings said they put a lot of money into the business in the last four years making improvements. The building they looked at Friday morning was just a sooted shell of that improvement.

    "The fire marshal said it's just hanging on by a few boards," James King said.

    The Kings said they have insurance and would like to rebuild. But there are more building and zoning and environmental rules these days, and they aren't sure they'll be able to rebuild at the same spot.

    "It's not really up to the owner of the building anymore," James King said. "It's up to the city or the state or the county. If I had my choice, I would."

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