It’s rare to get a retail history lesson from a cable drama, but when the D.C.-based “House of Cards” set a scene in Las Vegas, the camera panned across a remnant of a bygone Minneapolis retail chain: a Gambles store, complete with original logo. It was a bit like finding a Latin-speaking Roman colony in 14th-century England.
If you wondered what happened to the Gambles stores, well, the same thing that happens to all retail, eventually. The stores closed, the windows were soaped and something else filled the space. Gambles was forgotten and left no trace — except for a sign on a Sin City hardware store.
But what about the companies that construct buildings specifically designed for the demands of their trade? Chains like Pure, Tydol, Esso, Phillips 66, or Texaco? Each passed through town, built shops, and faded away. But the buildings they left weren’t like empty shops in a strip mall, or even an abandoned big-box store marooned in a parking lot. Gas stations look like nothing else, and no matter what you do to them, they look like gas stations.
Provided, that is, you know what gas stations used to look like. Today’s high-schoolers grew up with the Holiday-SuperAmerica model: broad metal roofs over two islands with three or four pumps. A store with milk and jerky, smokes and sandwiches. No service bay with a car up on the lift, tended by a guy in grimy coveralls. Today’s gas station is a grocery store that sells gas.
At old gas stations, the offerings were scant. A Zagnut bar and a Mountain Dew. Other sundries were available — an Ace comb, an evergreen-shaped air freshener hanging on a board that showed a glamour-gal headshot from 1956. But those were afterthoughts. You went to the gas station because your car needed something. The buildings, then and now, reflect the different purposes, and give us another example of the ongoing urban evolution: We gained choices and life got slightly easier. But we lost a little pizazz in the process.
There was nothing romantic about the early gas stations. A small hut and a pump. Pure Oil refined the form into little peak-roofed cottages that wouldn’t be out of place in a Maxfield Parrish painting; one surviving example of the “House” style on Nicollet Avenue S. at 53rd Street is now Tangletown Gardens, and it looks more at home surrounded by bushes and flowers than oil cans and lounging pump jockeys.
The change came after the war, as the major brands shifted to all-white rectangles with curved corners — elegant machines whose spotless exteriors made you forget about the oily, dirty, messy business inside. Big broad plate-glass windows for the waiting room, such as it was. Two service bays, one or two islands with pumps that chunked as the numbers rolled. They were interchangeable except for the color of the trim — green for Texaco, yellow for Shell.
In the 1960s the curved edges gave way to right angles, but they still followed the same layout: The station sat in the back of the lot on a corner, with a driveway on the main drag and crossstreet.
If you’re old enough, or know your architectural vernacular, you can spot them in a second. It’s not unusual to see another across the street. A competing brand for traffic headed in the other direction. There were three gas stations at 68th and Penn in Richfield. One’s empty. One sells flowers. The survivor still pumps gas and fixes brakes.
Few broke the boxy mold, and that seems odd. The ’50s and ’60s should have produced wild, inventive designs for gas stations, plugging into the va-va-voom Space Age tail-fin dream. They should have looked like California coffee shops, with star-shaped neon signs revolving above, amoeba-shaped overhangs instead of flat roofs. Now and then, here and there, sure — Palm Springs got some ultramodern gas stations that looked like the Man from U.N.C.L.E. would stop in and top off. Cloquet, Minn., has a gas station by Frank Lloyd Wright; it makes you a bit sad, because it’s like Beethoven writing a jingle for chewing gum.
It’s not his best work, but even if it had been a thing of perfection, it wouldn’t have replaced the boxes. The boxes were standardized and mass-produced. A guy who wanted to run a station didn’t want all his money in a fancy style. No one came to get their tires rotated because your architecture was distinctive.
There was one exception to the unadorned box: Phillips 66. The gas stations resembled their brethren in layout — waiting room, two bays — but the windows angled outward instead of perpendicular, and the canopy was an immense triangle lancing the sky, pierced by a metal tower adorned with a rotating 66 logo. It was the company’s signature look in the ’60s, and brought the playful modern optimism of the Googie style to towns across the country that hadn’t seen anything modern since the WPA built the post office.
You can still find them around town. There’s one at Portland and 60th, still doing duty as an auto repair shop. There’s another at West 7th and Wordsworth in St. Paul. The one at Minnehaha Avenue and 46th Street is now a dentist’s office, but it still looks like a gas station. It doesn’t want to be anything else.
Whatever distinction the clean style had was squandered in the 1970s. Texaco overhauled its look for the tasteless taste of the times: a thick overhanging roof and slabs of faux stone. There’s a surviving example at 54th Street and Penn Avenue S.; it’s a dentist’s office now, which fits; if you remember the classic Texaco style, looking at the stone makes your teeth hurt.
Modern gas stations are more convenient. More options. More products. They get more business, so they lend a frantic quality to dense intersections. They serve the neighborhood, but they’re not really neighborhood places. The old gas stations were smaller and did less, but they nestled into the life of the neighborhood, modest and utilitarian. When you recognize one today that’s been converted into something else, you’re pleased to see it found a new way to serve the locals. If you’re old enough you remember when they sang to you as you drove up. Two notes as you drove over the black snake: DING DING.
Gas stations don’t sing to you today. Oh, they talk. But “Prepay only on Pump 10” isn’t quite the same.