The Suitcase Lady


December 1, 2020, 9:17 pm

No one in America views gas stations as exotic places. Filling up the gas tank is about as mundane as tasks get. This, however, was not always the case.

When the century turned from 1899 to 1900, horses ruled the roads and the newly invented automobiles were regarded as novelties. But these horse replacements still had to be fed. Early drivers bought gasoline in cans from blacksmith shops or from lone gas pumps which starting appearing curbside. It took the popularity of the Model T to put the concept of a filling station in motion. An organized network of gas stations needed to be established, and architects had no prototypes for these buildings.

Between 1917 and 1930, the distinguished Milwaukee architect, Alexander Eschweiler, designed more than 100 Oriental style gas stations for the Wadham’s Oil and Grease Company. Each building had a unique design, but all were topped with a pagoda-style roof of metal tiles. Some even had lanterns dangling from the upturned corners of the roofs.

Photo –

Photo – Mary Tooley

Other historic styles also were employed to create this new group of buildings. Pure Oil stations mimicked quaint English cottages with white stucco walls and blue tile roofs. Tudor revival stations popped up in many residential neighborhoods, and the Eastern seaboard saw the rise of miniature lighthouses to beckon drivers to the pumps.

More unique and imaginative designs soon followed. Shell Oil built eight stations shaped like, you guessed it, giant seashells. Only one remains today in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Other oddities include stations shaped like a teapot and cowboy hat and boots.

Art Deco stations proliferated in the 1930s, and they were elegant. This beauty in Traverse City, Michigan, is still operative. The Conoco Tower, in Shamrock, Texas, on Route 66, is fully restored, but as an architectural landmark, not an operative gas station and cafe.

All of these exotic, quaint, quirky and decorative stations make our current ones seem totally uninspired. However, I have found one exception. Camille Walala, a much-in-demand French artist, has done a makeover of an abandoned 1950s filling station in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It’s a giant art installation, sans working gas pumps.  Alas, what fun it would be to fill’er-up here.





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