An Ode to the Filling Station
Filling station. Gas station. Whatever you call it, nearly all of us have used 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 essentially a small convenience store on the inside, and 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 as I have previously waxed poetic about Sinclair stations, I decided that it was time to indulge myself a bit further. 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.
I suppose I don't have to note that we've come full circle with today's stations being, in a sense, general stores with gas pumps out front.
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' and 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 outrage in the process. For example, Standard Oil caused so much outcry 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 and 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 was highlighted in my earlier post and 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.
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:
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 the 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. Ohio Barns, for example, has a great online collection of photographs.
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.
Credits: 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 mission revival station is from the LA Times, 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 part of a fascinating set of color photos published by the Denver Post. The Shamrock Conoco photo is from the link above. The remainder are from Wikipedia.