Working in the Wright place at the right time

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2011 - 10:21 PM

For five years now, Chad Korby has worked as a mechanic and gas station attendant in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed station in Cloquet.

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Chad Korby

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CLOQUET, MINN. - Chad Korby just filled a guy's propane tank for $60. He has one car engine left to service. Then he'll punch out and head home to his 2-year-old son, Aiden.

As the soft dusk light reflects off his blue eyes, Korby takes a minute to talk about a workplace both mundane and unique. For five years now, he's worked as a mechanic and gas station attendant at the Spur on the corner of Hwys. 45 and 33 in this old lumber town 137 miles north of the Twin Cities.

Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the 20th century's most important architect, designed the station in 1956 the only one he designed ever built. It was opened on Halloween 1958 with a 60-foot cantilevered roof pointing due north, four skylights illuminating the service bays and a glassed-in second-floor waiting lounge that feels like the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

"After 52 years, you'd think the weight of the roof would crush the glass," Korby says. "He definitely had a pretty sharp pencil when it came to doing stuff like that because it worked."

At least once a week in the wintertime, and daily in the summer, gawkers stop by for more than gas. Korby politely welcomes the curious from Germany, New York and one Wright aficionado from Wyoming who stands out in his mind.

"His sole purpose for coming was just to look at this building and take pictures," Korby says. "He built a house influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's design. People just like to kind of walk through and touch base with his design."

Korby says he'd first learned about Wright at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids. He'd filled up at the station countless times growing up 10 miles south in Wrenshall. He even knew some of the guys who worked at the station.

"But it kind of blended in and I didn't really know anything about the building or its history," he says.

Now he's an expert. He likes the lounge. "It gets you out of the shop and the smells and the noise when you're waiting for an oil change or repair."

He explains how the fourth car wash bay was added later but remained consistent with the design. And he loves the way Wright had "four skylights punched in there to let in a lot of natural light."

Sure, sometimes the gas station is just a workplace.

"It's funny," Korby says. "It's always got a shine to it, but then Monday through Friday, it does kind of blend in as just another place that you work. It's sad to say. But I guess that's the nature of the beast when you're doing the 8:30 to 5:30."

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