Gold Standard

A restored filling station in Kentucky represents preservation at its best

The brick filling station on the southwest corner of Circus Square in Bowling Green, Ky

Credit: ?Dorian Walker

In 1921, with automobile sales booming, Standard Oil constructed a filling station on the southwest corner of Circus Square in Bowling Green, Ky. Designed to blend with the neighborhood (its metal roof slanted to mimic nearby bungalow-style houses), it provided patrons with local maps, clean restrooms, and gasoline.

"Back then, people would buy [their gas] from hardware stores or even people's porches," says Dorian Walker, a local filmmaker and designer, and two-time chair of the Bowling Green & Warren County Historic Preservation Board. "There was no consistency in quality, and the concept of a community filling station was a brand-new thing."

Over time, car dealerships and service garages popped up in the vicinity, and the stretch of road between College and State streets became known as Automotive Alley. But after the construction of Interstate 65 in the 1960s, a growing number of residents moved to the suburbs. Businesses in downtown Bowling Green withered. Automotive Alley became a row of boarded-up, blighted buildings and the brick filling station a vacant shell.

Fast forward to 2007, when the city offered the station to anyone willing to restore it. "The recession was looming," says Walker. "Everyone began tightening their belts, and the last thing they wanted to do was allocate money to restore a filling station."

But what others saw as an economic liability, Walker saw as an opportunity for community service. He formed a five-person save-the-station team in early 2008. John Atkerson, a trained architect, completed a background study of the building's architectural significance; Miranda Clements represented the group as the preservation planner; Heather Rogers (a Downtown Redevelopment Authority member) wrote a report of the group's findings for the city commission; and Carroll Hildreth, whose father had purchased the station from Standard Oil in the 1940s, acted as an adviser.

"We told the city commission we were interested in adaptive reuse," says Walker. In October 2008 the city approved the team's proposal to transform the vintage station into a rest stop with public bathrooms for Circus Square Park.

Guided by architectural drawings based on historical photographs, contractor Mike Murphy stripped away an extraneous addition. Workers stabilized the station's trusses, restored the canopy and its iron braces, reconstructed the flooring, and painted the roof crimson. Walker then ordered vintage re-creations from Gas Pump Heaven, a Nebraska-based manufacturer. After a six-month restoration effort, the grand reopening was held last May. Bowling Green then received the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation Preservation Award for the project.

"Today it's a very popular photographic destination," says Walker. "And, I'll tell you, there are a lot of people asking to buy their gas at 17 cents a gallon like the sign says."

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