This post originally appeared on Car Lust December 10, 2013
I decided to resurrect this post after Oregon recently decided to let its fair citizens pump their own gas for the first time since 1951. . .at least in certain counties with low populations. After all, what is more common, more unobtrusive, more benign than stopping for a couple of minutes to fill the old car up with gas?
I guess a lot of stuff, if you live in urban Oregon or New Jersey. But how did such a ubiquitous facet of daily life come into being in the first place?
Filling station. Gas station. Whatever you call it, nearly all of us use them on an almost weekly basis. They’ve been a part of the American landscape for over a hundred years now. They’re so ubiquitous that most of us probably don’t even notice them until we need one, and then only to check the prices. Now, it’s true that today most stations are rather bland affairs: a bunch of pumps under a freestanding roof with a convenience store on the inside, and (very) occasionally a service bay or two.
“Pah,” I hear you scoff, “they’re just gas stations, what’s the big deal?”
Well, they’re not that big of a deal, but I’ve always had a fondness for gas stations (I know, I know. . . .) and Americana in general and decided that it was time to indulge myself.
Like any feature of the architectural landscape, while the buildings themselves are largely designed around a particular set of functions — selling gas, goods, and sometimes servicing — within those constraints they can vary according to prevailing stylistic trends, local aesthetics, and aspects of corporate self-imaging. Studying stations of past times tells us what people thought about the role of gas stations, the role of the automobile, the structure of the human landscape, and even how we ought to relate to one another generally. Some are simple, some elaborate, but all have something to say about their time and place. Unfortunately, due to their ubiquity and generally lowly function many have not survived to the present day. But I think they’re worth noting, appreciating and, in many cases, saving from the wrecking ball.
Back when automobiling was young the distribution of fuel was rather haphazard, usually dispensed in bulk from central locations and then decanted into the vehicle by hand. In the early 20th century after the gas pump (invented in 1885) was converted for automotive use, fuel delivery became more distributed as various businesses — hardware stores, general stores, etc. — installed pumps outside and sold it as part of their overall business. In larger cities, the pumps were often located right at the curb, while in rural areas the pumps were out front in a small parking area. The photo below was taken in 1940 in Melrose, Louisiana of a general store, bar, and “juke joint” with a gas pump outside. Alert viewers may also recall a similar setup shown in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? where George Clooney and Tim Nelson’s characters stole a 1931 Model A Victoria Coupe from a general store with a gas pump out front.
According to this site, my current town of Seattle may lay claim to the very first gas station:
In 1907, John McLean builds what some say is the world’s first gasoline service station at Holgate Street and Western Avenue in Seattle.
. . .
John McLean, head of sales in Washington for Standard Oil Company of California, purchased property adjacent to the Standard main depot and with engineer Henry Harris constructed a pipe from the main storage tank to a 30-gallon, six-foot-high galvanized tank. On the tank was a glass gauge and a valve with a hose so that the gasoline could be pumped directly into vehicles. Motorists typically purchased gasoline for their cars in wooden boxes containing two five-gallon cans from a general store or a livery stable in the same way that they bought kerosene for their lamps. The cans were filled from a storage tank on the premises and because the size of the refillable cans was known, there was no need for a measuring device on the tank.
By the 19-teens as cars became more ubiquitous, oil companies started setting up their own stations to distribute their product. Initially, these were simple ‘sheds’ with a single a canopy over the pumps and an attached small office and cashier. Often, they were made from pre-fabricated components with the name of the oil company embossed on various parts and erected in strategic locations (see top photo). Drivers could drive right up, fill up their tanks (was it self-serve back then?), pay the cashier and be on their way. These sorts of stations were most often located in urban centers as they took up very little space and drivers could be in and out quickly. Rural stations tended to be larger and were usually attached to other businesses with more parking area while customers gassed up and did other business in the same location.
By the 1920s stations had started to look more like formal businesses and less like ramshackle sheds. They were also starting to spread away from city centers and into more residential neighborhoods and so began to take on the character of the local area’s architecture rather than a prefabricated utilitarian structure. Along with this trend, oil companies were also starting to concentrate on brand loyalty and the more general concept of ‘branding’ began to make their stations more distinctive to their company. To be sure, in many cases this was also part of what we would now call a public relations move: in many areas, oil companies had been knocking down a lot of historic buildings to build filling stations and causing some public outcry in the process.
For example, Standard Oil caused so much of a kerfuffle after they razed three historic residences in Charleston, SC that they hired the architect Albert Simons to design a station in the colonial revival style using bricks, columns, and other materials left over from the demolition of another historic structure. That particular station remained in use until 1981 when it was restored and reused for a different function. Standard Oil, in fact, became rather famous for it’s colonial revival style of station and several have survived. Other companies developed their own styles which were often tailored to suit the location such as the mission revival style popular in the southwest and west.
As the century progressed different forms developed, had their heyday, and declined. For the remainder of this post I’ll just highlight a few of them.
This Sinclair station is located in Fort Worth, TX. It’s a typical box type of station with the canopied pumps out front and a couple of service bays attached to the office/store. Many of these stations, especially popular in the 1930s, used a lot of white porcelain and glass in their construction and featured straight, clean lines to project an air of cleanliness and efficiency. The Depression prompted companies to add to their revenue streams by offering automotive services and products in addition to just selling gas and thus we go from the basic shed to a larger, more multi-purpose structure.
This image is of a 1960s-era Phillips 66 station in Flagstaff, AZ. This sort of large V-shaped canopy was used by Phillips in a lot of post-WWII stations and was very popular for quite some time. They were so popular that many of them were torn down and are considered fairly rare and historically significant these days. Note especially the swooping triangle roof line; I see quite a few of these out west here, though not as gas stations anymore.
Another development of the 1930s was the ‘programmatic’ or ‘novelty’ form where the main structure was designed as a large representation of some object. These could be representative of the oil company such as this Shell Station, built in 1930 in Winston-Salem, NC:
Another novelty station I visited this past weekend, the old Hat ‘n’ Boots station in the Georgetown area of Seattle:
As the link notes, this was the Premium Tex station built in 1955. The office was under the hat and the boots housed the restrooms. This isn’t the original location; they were installed nearby next to the then-primary highway through town and were in danger of being demolished, but local resident had them moved and restored at their present location.
Perhaps the most beautiful gas station from the early decades (or ever, IMO) is the Tower Conoco Station in Shamrock, TX:
This station was built in 1935 and was one of many businesses catering to travelers on Route 66. It was originally designed in the art deco style common to the day, and was meant as a multi-purpose structure with the gas station, a cafe (The “U Drop Inn”), and retail space that was never used as such. Happily the city of Shamrock restored the building to its original glory and it remains there to this day (see here for more photos and here for more history and some period photos).
A little-known company, Wadham’s Oil and Grease Company of Milwaukee, WI, constructed a number of pagoda-shaped stations between 1917 and 1930:
Not that Wisconsin was a hotbed of Japanese culture in the early 20th century, but the “Japonism” style was popular at the time and this style, designed by Alexander Eschweiler, was adopted by Wadham’s as part of their corporate branding strategy. These were built in and around southern Wisconsin and only a few remain. One is in West Allis, WI, and was restored and is maintained by the city of West Allis. Another is located in Cedarburg, WI and is now the home of Pagoda Fine Jewelry, who continue to maintain the building.
There are far more examples of weird and wonderful stations I could highlight, but I’ll leave the interested reader to pursue more of these.
I probably don’t need to note a certain irony in the fact that gas stations began when general stores and the like put fuel pumps outside to get a little extra revenue, while their main store provided the bulk of the income; which is what most stations have become these days with “convenience stores” or even a lot of full-blown grocery stores putting pumps outside for extra revenue.
Why bother with these? Mainly because they’re a part of our collective heritage and remind us where we were and how we got here. Like any other old building, existing ‘antique’ service stations can inform us of historically significant contributions to both local and national history. So next time you drive by what seems little more than a local eyesore, stop to consider its place in the history of your town and perhaps give a thought to starting a push toward preserving some of these.
The Shell shed station and the bottom photo are from a National Park Service document that gives a more thorough history of filling stations and also provides information on the many and varied ways that they can be restored and preserved. The Sinclair Station photo is located here. The Gilmore station is from the Pinterest, and the Phillips station is from the Edward Ruscha collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The historic photo of the Melrose, Louisiana station is from Wikimedia Commons. The Shamrock Conoco photo is from the link above. The remainder are from Wikipedia.