“The ideal filling station has never been built,” scoffed a big oil executive in 1922. “I don’t think it ever will be built. But we are trying to get it.” Quite an admission from a man whose company (Standard Oil of Indiana) operated 1,400 stations of its own. The idea of the gas station had been around for nearly a decade, but the form was still very much evolving. By 1920, 15,000 had cropped up across America; by 1929 more than 120,000 littered the landscape. Other than dispensing gasoline to a burgeoning number of vehicle owners, no two oil companies could agree what a gas station ought to look like. And with money to be made, there was no time for debate. So, in the name of gasoline sales, and the bottom line, the city’s streets, boulevards and highways became a living laboratory of asphalt, brick, tin and flashing electric signage.
The experiments that ultimately gave us the American Gas Station took many forms: sheds and shacks, pyramids and pagodas, cottages and castles, wigwams and windmills. Some even led to extravagant structures modeled on mosques and temples. Design diversity would be about right, the oil executive would admit. “I would not want them all alike,” he said. “But I would demand of them a family resemblance—a Hapsburg chin, so to speak.” Selling gasoline wouldn’t be about gasoline, so much as consistency, service and branding. The oil exec didn’t know what he wanted his stations to look like, but he did know he wanted them all “recognizable at a distance.”
When did the question of what a gas station might look like first get answered? The year was 1913. That’s when William M. Burton patented his process for the “Manufacture of Gasolene,” acknowledging a “great and growing demand.” That’s the year Henry Ford dropped the price of his Model T to $550 and sold more than 308,000 cars. And that’s the year Gulf Refining Company opened the first of its purpose-built, drive-in gas station in Pittsburgh.
A century ago, fuel-hungry drivers could finally abandon the pharmacy’s ad hoc pail and funnel. Now they could drive past the lines at the tank wagon’s garden hose or the curbside pumps standing like afterthoughts outside grocery and hardware stores. In 1913, for the first time, motorists could pull up to paved stations devoted exclusively to servicing the nation’s new fleets. Gulf’s first station, an octagonal brick kiosk with a cantilevered pagoda-style roof bore the words “Good Gulf Gasoline” spelled out in lights. Need air, water, crankcase service, and tire and tube installation? Just drive up to your nearest Gulf octagon.
Shortly after the model proved itself in Pittsburgh, Gulf built another in West Philadelphia, at 33rd and Chestnut Streets. On a good day, attendants pumped 3,000 gallons from ten 550-gallon underground tanks. “The liberal patronage of our West Philadelphia Service Station… and the number of requests from the North Broad Street District have prompted us to build another service station,” read the advertisement in The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The new station at Broad Street and Hunting Park Avenue opened April 17, 1916. “Courteous attendants will supply you—cheerfully pump your tires or fill your radiator…free of charge.” Need a road map? They were now free, too. Gulf had found its solution for design and for service—and would stick with this formula for the next decade and a half.
How did the competition respond? The Philadelphia and Pittsburgh-based Atlantic Refining Company formed a committee to brainstorm. How could Atlantic outdo Gulf in a “new marketing offensive?” The committee toured stations throughout the state, and beyond, and decided this challenge needed the talent of an architect. Joseph F. Kuntz of the Pittsburgh-based W. G. Wilkens and Company got the unusual commission. Gas stations were about to be ramped up to a new level of design—the likes of which had never been seen before—or since.
The battle for Gasadelphia on North Broad Street was about to take off.
NEXT TIME: Round Two