A Work in Progress on the
Basic Gasoline Station
Keith A. Sculle
This article contains 31 images. So that you may access them as they are cited in the article, each reference to a figure is a link you may click to view a large popout of that particular image. Enjoy. (All figures are courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted.)
Research proposals often begin modestly. So it is in the instance of this paper about certain aspects of the basic gasoline station. Definitions first. The building type in this venture is not the gas station with extensive collateral services (Figure 1), principally, food, beverages, personal supplies, and a car wash — although a basic station may sell a few of the former three (Figure 2). Repair garages in proximate location or joined to the station and the sales of lubricants, tires, and batteries are included in the basic type (Figure 3) (Jakle and Sculle 1994, 131). This restricts focus to historical examples (Figure 4), those stations at least 20 or more years old, preceding the convenience store (Figure 5). The gas stations here can be either one-of-a-kind that contractors built (Figure 6) or that architects designed for replication throughout petroleum company chains (Figure 7).
We have all seen them. But how much attention to details have scholars paid? What has the basic gas station yet to yield about its creators’ original design concepts? If we turn to the altogether new topic of their re-uses (Figure 8), the adaptations and reasons for their continued re-use deserve attention about the Roadside renewed (Figure 9).
Perhaps it is easily understandable that scholars of the Roadside have not plumbed the topics proposed here despite the considerable progress made since the field opened in the 1970s. Critics of the Roadside still attack it as cheap, ephemeral, and, withal, ugly. Disparaging prose has dumped it in with “sprawl” and just more “pop culture.” Would-be scholars might be scared off. Then, because the Roadside is a dynamic place, constantly in extension into new real estate and in the revitalization of old locations, historically oriented scholars in various disciplines, at least, have concentrated heavily on origins and less on current processes. Preservationists lately have been encouraged to maintain gas stations’ “historic features,” ranking as afterthoughts their contributions to the economy (Randl 2006, 14). Where planners are concerned with economic issues, gasoline stations adapted for profitable new businesses can yet be overlooked in favor of city center revitalization versus automobile-generated strip malls (Eubanks 2010). Aficionados of roadside architecture, by contrast, have incessantly renewed interest in basic gas stations because aficionados proceed primarily through feeling, searching for what they like, and barely through a research agenda except as it may take the form of searching out other examples on the classic, light-hearted “road trip.” Planners and aficionados usually pursue their interest without deliberately sharing information to build a widely based body of knowledge. Despite the work on gas stations since the 1970s, close structural tracings and small-scale locational information comparable to the large bibliography about log construction, barns, or Colonial Virginia houses still merits examination. I invite improvement of this undertaking through your searching questions and answers.
Because the agenda outlined here is still in progress, I will rely upon numerous photographs taken on my own surveys (Figure 10). I will add what I have learned as I looked at the buildings and talked with the people who owned these basic gas stations, freely offer my intuition, and relay, where possible, some insights from those more advanced in their own established and structured studies of vernacular architecture. This is not to waste your attention here. Henry Glassie acknowledged in his now renown Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States over 40 years ago: “This is not a survey of a well-ordered subject field with an impressive bibliography, definite methods, and goals. It is an impressionistic introduction — an essay with which I have fussed for a year and a half in hopes of stimulating work in an area which has not received the study it needs” (Glassie 1968, vii). I suffer no illusion that a favorable comparison with Glassie will result but I do have faith that modest beginnings can eventually yield valuable insights. Indeed, they may be your own work in regions beyond where John Jakle and I have laid a foundation.
The Cube and Canopy
Easily apparent, and intriguing because of their shape, is the cubic form of the many basic gas stations within my view. It is a sub-category of the house with canopy shown here (Jakle and Sculle 1994, 134 and 137-141). Look from the front (Figure 11); you see a building usually as wide as it is high. With no tall roof at its apex, this watershed hardly competes for attention with the building’s mass. From the side, the view imparts an identical relaxed feeling; for an area beneath the canopy formed of the overhang from the enclosed building is the same volume as the enclosed building (Figure 12). Again, no steeply pitched roof draws much attention to itself, in fact, giving a sense of gently resting upon the same sure-footed frames beneath it in the enclosed building and its canopy. Might the name “cube and canopy” be fitting for the lexicon of Roadside architecture (Figure 13)? I proposed it some time ago (Sculle 1981, 60). “Bungalow” may serve, as one example was classified in a National Register nomination (Figure 14) (McDaniel and Maserang, sec. 8, p. 10-11), but “bungalow” is a term too charged with the association of domestic architecture to allow the possibility of vernacular origins peculiar to the highway.
If people routinely have taken soaring spires for a yearning to touch God’s heavens in church design, is it preposterous to ascribe mundane yearning in the cube and canopy gas stations? (Wikipedia ascribed this symbolic function with certainty at the same time it asked for a footnoted source. [“Spire”.] ) Is the cube on which the type appears to be based a consequence of utilitarian efficiency? Was it easiest to draw plans for and construct a building that represented little challenge to getting bids on siding and framing materials? Was it more readily accessible to furniture for the inside, perhaps including makeshift use of items appropriated from home or other businesses?
At a time when gas stations were suspect as incompatible in domestic neighborhoods — often branded a “bad neighbor” — did the cube and canopy calm feelings subconsciously? It looked like the trustworthy sheds which people relied on for storing tools beside their houses. Gasoline pumps were poised foursquarely in front of the station and projecting no farther than the perimeter of the outer cube forming the canopy fit tightly within the building’s visual frame (Figure 15). This the pumps did from any sightline. They never intruded their commercial implication beyond the reserve of the cube and canopy’s humble demeanor.
Without any discussion with those who built a cube and canopy only such speculation can be offered by the daring. Unfortunately, I have interviewed no one who built one, nor has anyone else to my knowledge (Sculle 1981, 60). Might the cube itself as a basic aesthetic element of design help explain the design?
How far throughout the nation did the cube and canopy exist? A heavy concentration existed in Illinois and Wisconsin when I methodically surveyed small towns in Illinois and Wisconsin 30 years ago and they were compatible there with small town housing. Examples scattered throughout the nation in rural areas have been photographed — here in Kentucky (Figure 16) and Mississippi (Figure 17) — as I happened on to them without any intention of a methodical survey the farther they were from my home in central Illinois. Were any built in urban areas?
How does the original form and styling limit or enable re-use of basic gas stations? Are they re-used as much in cities (Figure 18)as in rural areas? A rigorously ordered survey is required but an impressionistic one based on examples that happen to be seen can suffice until an ordered study. Proceeding now is essential because as time passes so too do the types of gas station preceding the C-store. Eleven years ago, Norris and Coffey warned of this in the earliest study of adaptively re-used gas stations (Norris and Coffey 2000, 43-44). Re-use advocates of one building type, the barn, have gone beyond the urgency of the passing years and economic and environmental wisdom to champion a mission of cultural salvation, claiming barns are iconic (Endersby, Greenwood, and Larkin, 2003). For some reason, advocates of the gas station’s re-use have not laid that cultural claim although the potential exists.
Re-use may initially be a function of a former gas station’s location (Figure 19). If the volume of passing traffic still carries enough customers (Figure 20), then adaptation can be a cost-effective strategy. Notwithstanding the comparatively recent ethical strategy of “green preservation,” adaptation may be comparatively inexpensive for a merchant vis-a-vis new construction.
Little geographical and historical perspective exists on re-used gas stations of any kind. Jakle and I have only briefly alluded to the re-used stations as single museum-like elements that could be forerunners to a Roadside museum (Figure 21) (Jakle and Sculle 2011, 117-20) A. L. Kerth, an architect, published as long ago as 1974 and again eight years later on gas stations re-used but his good work was intended to promote re-use and not to produce geographical, historical, or other academic insights except future architectural design (Kerth 1974 and 1982). Recently, here and there on the web, brief synopses of re-used examples are given by businesses operating in one, design firms advertising their services, at least one city’s news, several cities’ historic preservation surveys, and an AIA award turn up. Design advocates look forward more than in retrospect. Surveys outline the building’s past but most often show what the examples looked like when they were surveyed. Occupants may briefly outline their building’s past but they emphasize the current services. Everything on the web I have seen exudes, in a chamber of commerce spokesperson words about an example, “lots of personality” (Figure 22) (Clark 2010). Basic stations without some artful application are absent from my viewing on the web. To help structure a discriminating scholarly approach to the basic gas station’s re-use about the past, I offer almost exclusively what owners, renters, or lessees learned from daily use and related to me (Figure 23) . Architects can build a body of useful information within their categories of knowledge, for example, cost and materials. In contrast, random categories and only some of the architects’ thoughts are anticipated by laymen. Again, modesty characterizes my presentation here because the lay-professional comparison will be drawn later, elsewhere. The following examples of two basic gas stations re-used I find illustrative of the many fostering work toward meaningful geographical and historical generalizations. Essential to the selection of useful cases is the fact that their occupants be well informed about the adaptation and willing to share fully what they know.
Susan Willis in Shamrock, Texas, is but one of those respondents. Since 2001 (Figure 24) , she has operated Olde Station Antiques in a previous owner’s adapted basic gas station which I saw in 2008 when I initially spoke with her. It was a cube and canopy when built in 1926 (Figure 25) and the man who started the now famous U-Drop Inn several blocks north on tourist-flooded Route 66 operated it. Willis’ store also has a second advantageous location because it is just east, across the street from what is purported to be the nation’s tallest water tower. The city has made the tower the focus of attention in this already popular Route 66 town by maintaining the well landscaped Water Tower Park. Willis has increasingly learned, however, that her building has its own charms, for example, its tin ceiling (Figure 26). People not especially interested in antiques often stop in because they see that the shop was once a gas station and ask her questions about its history. It “does its own advertising,” Willis asserts. Others “relate antiques to a building that has history” (Figure 27). Sales and history reinforce each other. Route 66’s short distance may bring in aficionados primed for acquaintance with an existing material manifestation in a building otherwise unnoticed. Surely, Willis herself admits her appreciation of the building’s appeal (Figure 28) has grown each year since she went into business there (Willis 2010).
To balance this buoyancy, hear about the re-fitted Pure Oil “English cottage” station in Paris, Kentucky, where I stopped in 2009 en route to the Pioneer America Society meeting (Figure 29). A New Leaf Florist and Gifts, as it was renamed, seemed smartly adapted to the small scale business operated there. Less than a year later, the building was emptied and was up for sale while its owner oversaw it from his successful restaurant immediately across the street and hoped something would go right with his former floral and gift shop. Front-door traffic had presented no hurdle.
The narrative of Joe Watkins, the shop’s owner, is one of declining fortunes and personal tragedy associated with its attempted re-use. When he and his wife bought the building in 1991, it already had been adapted and they planned it for a retirement investment. When they were too old to run the business there, they planned to rent it. Primarily the front-door parking and somewhat its cottage architecture made the exterior attractive, but Watkins gradually learned the interior was too small and further hampered by too many walls dividing the interior to render it useful for anything but a “trinket business,” as he called it (Figure 30), or a gas station. And this is a building with two former garage bays in addition to the office space. Nine years before Watkins’ interview, a fire in the adjacent building caused it to collapse on Watkins’ building and that cost $194,000 to rebuild. Beneath the building rest two 2,000-gallon tanks filled with gasoline and a 250-gallon tank of used motor oil still undrained. Oil leaks out and, to add instability to the building’s foundation, is the fact that stones lie beneath it. The building’s back wall is also cracked. Five years before I interviewed him, the death of his wife, who Watkins has faith would have made it a successful business location, was not the only coup de grace; for an aggressively mean public official and property owner schemed to acquire the property and still plagued Watkins at the time of my interview. Before Watkins itemized these troubles, he perplexedly summarized there has “been a stigma about the building” (Watkins 2010). What will happen to this building (Figure 31)?
On the two topics alone here treated, considerable work is needed. What did the cube and canopy enable or signal about the Roadside? Is it to forever remain an enticing form related only to what was? Are its builders and owners of a generation long deceased so that information recovered via interviews of its builders and owners is impossible? Is there any folk tradition about this type of station? On the other hand, adaptive re-use has enabled basic gas station buildings to be one of the most resilient Roadside building types. As to re-used basic gas stations, could any one of their shells work for new businesses so long as traffic past the front door was brisk? Are architecturally deemed “historic features or materials” essential to re-use? Who decides? What will failed adaptive re-use tell? Why did some fail? How many cases failed because the road succeeded and the stations were razed because the corridor serving the road succeeded with a consequent road widening? How can instances of failure even be identified if the primary strategy for identification has been field survey of standing buildings or ruins? Remember too, adaptive re-use does not just occur along the way and it is not something of secondary interest; re-use enables the Roadside. For the moralists it replaces the perspective of the Roadside as a negative environment where a nearly neurotic novelty precludes a healthy growth over long durations. While the cube and canopy’s future may be in research about its past, the adaptively re-used gas station has a re-use past also worth researching while its future re-use continually unfolds.
Finally — a serious challenge for this project is to get people to answer questions while their business is still going, unlike the challenge of the cube and canopy to find people who know why it was so built. Somewhere between a silent past and the unfolding present lies the ideal hunting ground for this project.
Clark, Cheryl, Maquoketa, Iowa, Chamber of Commerce. 2010. Telephone discussion with the author, September 17.
Endersby, Elric, Alexander Greenwood, and David Larkin. 2003. Barn Preservation and Adaptation: The Evolution of an Icon. New York: Universe Publishing.
Eubanks, Steve, partner in Main Street Kitchens, Elmira, New York. 2010. Email to the author, November 17.
Glassie, Henry. 1968. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Jakle, John A. and Keith A. Sculle. 1994. The Gas Station in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
— — — — . Remembering Roadside America: Preserving the Recent Past as Landscape and Place. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.
Kerth, A. L. 1982. Successful Business Uses for abandoned service stations. Washington Crossing, Penna: Albert A. Kerth.
— — -. 1974. New Life for the Abandoned Service Station. Washington Crossing, Penna.: A. L. Kerth.
McDaniel, Vicki and Roger Maserang. “Gardner and Tinsley’s Filling Station,” National Register of Historic Places nomination, 2002.
Norris, Daryl and Brian Coffey. 2000. “The Persistence of Use and Adaptive Reuse of Gas Stations: An Example from Western New York,” Material Culture, 32: 2: 43-54.
Randl, Chad. 2006. “The Preservation and Reuse of Historic Gas Stations,” 46 Preservation Briefs. National Park Service.
Sculle, Keith A. 1981. “The Vernacular Gasoline Station: Examples in Illinois and Wisconsin,” Journal of Cultural Geography, 1: 2: 56-74.
“Spire,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spire (accessed Aug. 31, 2010).
Watkins, Joe. 2010. Telephone interview with the author, September 8.
Willis, Sandy. 2010. Telephone interview with the author, September 1.
Keith A. Sculle, historian, geographer, and historic preservationist, has been interested in the America Roadside since 1973. Retired from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency after 34 years, he still actively pursues his research interests.