A Classical, Papier-Mâché Gas Station at the Sesquicentennial


Constructing the Atlantic Refining Company Exhibit at the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

Pretty much anything might be found, past or present, at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition, the lesser of Philadelphia’s two World’s Fairs.  Mounted at the bottom of Broad Street in 1926, visitors passed under the giant, electrified Liberty Bell, famously lit with 26,000 light bulbs and plunged into a world that was familiar, but also oddly uncertain.

The “Tower of Light,” led through to a “Gladway” and scores of exhibit buildings, rides and restaurants. A recreated “High Street 1776” connected a giant new stadium to “Treasure Island” amidst a landscape of lagoons, a Japanese tea house and a Military Camp. At the southernmost end of the grounds, just before the exhibits gave way to the Navy Yard, stood the largest exhibit building of all, the “U.S. Government, Transportation, Machinery, Mines & Metallurgy” building, aka the Palace of Manufactures and Industries. At 11.5 acres, this building didn’t seem like an afterthought, but in mid-June, weeks after opening day, it was still only framed out in steel.

When the Palace of Manufactures and Industries finally did open, this 1,800-foot-long, V-shaped building was packed with everything from the “World’s Mightiest Electric Locomotive,” from the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, to Pullman cars, trolley cars, electric cars, gasoline cars, tractors, locomotives and fire engines. Wedged between exhibits of General Electric and the Miners Association of Bolivia, the Atlantic Refining Company fabricated a pavilion made by the Fine Arts Papier Mache Corporation of New York. Here would be a full-size facsimile of the classical gas station Atlantic Refining had opened with fanfare are Broad Street and the Boulevard nearly a decade earlier.

Its architect, Joseph Franklin Kuntz, of the Pittsburgh firm W. G. Wilkens and Company, had reason to believe his vision joining past and present in gas station design might still catch on. Since the middle of the last decade, Kuntz had designed temples to the gasoline gods, high-end, Greek-Revival stations. In 1923, in a vote of confidence, Atlantic Refining awarded Kuntz the commission for a classically-inclined headquarters at Broad and Spruce Streets.

The V-shaped building at the lower left is the U.S. Government, Transportation, Machinery, Mines & Metallurgy Building. Composite Map of the Sesquicentennial International Exposition from 1926, with street overlay from 2008. (PhillyHistory.org and Azavea)

Atlantic Refining Company Exhibit at the Sesquicentennial, 1926. (PhillyHistory.org)

In a 1922 article, “Greek Architecture and Gasoline Service Stations” Kuntz made the case that bad gas station design was bound to happen, but could be avoided. “In an infant industry that grew to gigantic proportions almost over night, certain makeshift arrangements were inevitable in preparing to cater to a constantly expanding volume of trade. In consequence, our automobile highways have been dotted by nondescript buildings which offended the eye of the beholder, and possessed but one solitary attribute as a justification for their existence—utility. Like the bill-boards, these structures threatened to become a permanent blot upon the landscape.”

But Kuntz believed bad gas station design wasn’t inevitable. “The Atlantic Refining Company,” he wrote, “decided to make a radical departure from established precedent and erect a series of ornamental service stations that would minister to the needs of its customers and at the same time served as an advertising medium for its product, combining the function of service and the quality of beauty in approximately equal proportions. Situated at various points in the cities and villages along the principal highways of Pennsylvania and New England, these beautiful little edifices delight the eye as well as they serve the public. … Constructed of terra cotta, in white or colors…and ornamental plaster in harmonizing shades, they afford a wide variety of types and sizes, with special designs to suit individual locations and space requirements.”

Kuntz was particularly proud of his “dainty little edifice” at 40th and Walnut Streets, “a reproduction, on an enlarged scale of the monument to Lysycraties, in Athens.” This gas station’s “perfect proportions will linger long in the memory,” Kuntz wrote, “striking contrast to the great majority of buildings erected for the purpose of supplying the wants of modern charioteers.” A didactic approach to “practical city beautification,” Kuntz believed, was the “only effectual method of preventing architectural monstrosities;” the only way of “applying esthetic interest to natural human needs in the building up of cities and towns.”

He was wrong, of course. As the papier-mâché dried at the Sesquicentennial, this anachronistic, historical-esoterical interpretation of the American gas station was about to be replaced by a thoroughly modern idea, that superior gas station design could be sleek, bright and contemporary. That gas stations could convey cleanliness, speed and be of this world. Within another decade or so, the modern gas station replaced Kuntz’s designs, would take over the service station industry—and, eventually, the American cityscape.

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