Running on Empty

Many old gas stations are gone, but some have been restored as beauty salons, offices, or restaurants.

A National Register-listed gas station in Portland, Ore., that was restored in 2003

Credit: Rob Phillips

Since the invention of the Model T in 1908, the automobile has affected almost every aspect of American life, including architecture. As roads and highways spread like spider webs across the country, so did the business of fueling America's passion for road travel.

"In the Midwest, there was a Standard Oil station at every intersection. We thought they'd be there forever," says John Jakle, a retired professor of cultural geography and co-author, with historian Keith Sculle, of The Gas Station in America. "Now they're gone and in the process of being rediscovered."

Today hundreds of older gas stations have fallen into disrepair, especially after interstates render old highways obsolete. But the American love affair with all things automotive has spiked a resurrection of interest in the old buildings.

First built to support the self-measuring pump invented by Sylvanus Freelove Bowser in 1905, gas stations were not always dank cinderblock buildings redolent with the smell of oil and grease. They resembled giant teapots, windmills, and, in the case of eight stations built by Quality Oil in the 1930s, seashells.

Shaped like shells, the miniscule stations sported mustard-colored exteriors; their interiors were a claustrophobic's nightmare. Constructed of a wood-lath frame covered with wire mesh coated with concrete, seven of the eight buildings fell victim to time and neglect. The last original "shell" station was rescued by the nonprofit Preservation North Carolina. Nine years ago, the purchased an interest in the station, which was built in 1930.

"When we got involved, the building was in pretty sad condition and being used for storage," Foundation President Myrick Howard says. In 1997, following extensive renovations, it was launched as one of the foundation's satellite offices.

Howard says he'd like to see more of old gas stations saved, but few remain. "A lot of them didn't survive," Howard says. "They were torn down to make way for bigger stations."

Up until World War II, stations reflected the personalities of their owners and communities, according to Jakle. Their whimsical and unique designs were meant to draw travelers inside. The tiny, teapot-shaped station that lured drivers near Zillah, Wash., still has working pumps. In Bakersfield, Calif., a former Richfield station is now a gas station-themed restaurant aptly called the Filling Station Restaurant. And in Shamrock, Tex., a 1930s-era Conoco station and restaurant with glazed ceramic tile walls and art deco details remained in operation until the last part of the 20th century. Following a year-long renovation that began in 2002, the building, which fronts historic Route 66, currently houses the Shamrock Chamber of Commerce.

No one has catalogued all the country's old-fashioned gas stations, but some states have. In the late 1990s, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program ferreted out antique gas stations in the state with the goal of listing them on the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually its efforts documented 18 sites, ranging from dual-pump country stations styled like English cottages to art deco stations. The majority of them were located on little-used roads.

"Many of the traditional old highways are now less traveled in favor of the interstates with their sterile, generic gas-and-fast-food places," says Mark Christ, program spokesman.

Few of the surviving Arkansas stations still sell gas, however. One Craftsman-style station built in 1924 in Prescott has been home to an insurance company, a restaurant, and a beauty salon. The Esso station in Piggot, a Colonial-style building built in 1942, is a commercial-rental property, while a mission-influenced Texaco station built in Paragould in 1925 has seen service as a hamburger joint for the past two decades.

Christ says Arkansas officials located the gas stations thanks to press releases and canvases. "It was quite successful," he says. "People are interested in preserving these generally well-made little buildings."

In Portland, Ore., Rob Phillips renovated a National Register-listed station as a tobacco shop in 2003. The restored Signal station, with its cream-colored gas pumps and neon frosting, nestles in a working-class neighborhood. When Phillips first found the property in 2002, he knew it was not unusual for gas stations from that era to be run-down and damaged, but he looked beyond the station's battered surface. "The potential was here. The original configuration hadn't been totally destroyed," he says.

A full century after the invention of the self-measuring pump, shiny, streamlined modern-day models have replaced many stations. But thanks to some far-sighted individuals and programs, an integral part of American history will be forever preserved. "They are a great enabling force," Jakle says, "the source of opportunity for lots of Americans who came of age and enjoyed success after World War II."

Carole Moore is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.  

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