Forget all you know about gas stations: the self-service pumps, the lifts, bays, stretches of oil-stained concrete, bright signage and bad coffee. Imagine a time before all that, from a century ago, when the widespread sale of gasoline was inevitable but the solution as to how and where was not yet known. In an earlier post, we saw how Gulf Refining Company figured out a way to meet the logistical challenge of filling empty tanks. Gulf succeeded in selling lots of fuel, and it did so with a minimum of flair and imagination.
By the 1910s, the expression of stability, permanence and civic responsibility, aka City-Beautiful Classicism, had been put to work on behalf of railroads, power plants, and movie theaters—so why not put it to work for the oil industry? At a time of uncertainty, flux and extraordinary profits, why wouldn’t rich companies go on the charm offensive building palaces where sheds would suffice? Executives at the Atlantic Refining Company knew full well theirs was a dirty business. They had known it back in the 1860s when the company first stored and spilled oil and spun a positive corporate image on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Now, in the new century, the automobile was the big new thing. It seemed this might be as big as the railroad had been in the last century. The automobile would take over and transform the city, for better or worse. If ever there was an need to deploy the full persuasive powers of architecture, this was that time.
Responding to Gulf’s success, the Atlantic Refining Company’s marketing task force turned to the ideas of Charles Mulford Robinson. In his new book, Modern Civic Art: Or, The City Made Beautiful. Robinson considered the urban boulevards and bridges built to accommodate the automobile and wrote: “It is the triumph of modern civic art, to transform these necessary girdles and girders of the structure of the city into ways of pleasure and beauty. Here the whirr of the electric car, there the rush of swiftly passing motor cars—these are elements of the scene that may count not less distinctly in the total power to please than does the verdure.” Really? Millions of cars might offer as much as parkland? The man who inspired the City Beautiful Movement just wouldn’t allow himself to have an ugly thought.
Atlantic seized the opportunity and brought in an architect to leverage these new and positive thoughts about the automobile. Between 1917 and 1922, Joseph F. Kuntz of the Pittsburgh firm W. G. Wilkens and Company designed for Atlantic a handful of gas palaces in Pittsburgh and no less than 16 in Philadelphia. These polychromatic terracotta “temples” appeared like beacons on the boulevards. They flattered and pandered to the new urban driving breed. Atlantic set out to appeal to “automobilists, who find considerable pleasure touring over its smooth and well-kept roadways and bridges.” While Gulf staffed its utilitarian stations with men, Atlantic populated their temples with women outfitted in dark blue woolen uniforms, riding breeches and black leather accessories. With seventeen pumps, Atlantic advertised, “there will be absolutely no waiting” for service.
The gasoline was basically the same as Gulf’s product, but the experience was very different. Atlantic became widely known and admired for its “Greek temple effects.” Architect Kuntz developed a unique design for each new location which he refined in drawings and tested in miniature plaster models. Knowing customers would be buying gasoline day and night, and that they were concerned about the possibility of electric lights igniting fuel, Kuntz concealed electrical lights to outline the buildings and their colonnades. By 1922, sixteen busy Philadelphia intersections had unique gas temples by Kuntz, including 40th and Walnut, Cobbs Creek Parkway and Ludlow Street, Walnut and Fifty-fifth and just a few blocks south of the first success, at Broad and Lycoming.
What would Gulf do to keep its customers happy? They did the only thing a modern gas station could do: they kept their prices competitive and offered road maps and oil changes—for free.