Dinosaurs, Tigers, and Pegasus: Are Historic Gas Stations an Endangered Species?

Ubiquitous: (adj) present, appearing, or found everywhere.

Ah, the ubiquitous gas station. You probably stopped at one this week, if not to fill up your gas tank then maybe to grab a soda or a lottery ticket. In my tiny home town, the first intersection to get a stoplight had gas stations on two of the four corners – and every morning, you could find the same handful of folks inside each one, drinking coffee, talking about the weather. While you paid for your fuel and your kolaches, they’d catch you up on all the latest chatter – you could get what you needed at a local filling station.

Modern filling stations are brightly lit utilitarian structures, easier to find along the interstates and major highways than their ancestors who preferred to inhabit busy commercial corridors leading downtown. Remove their signs and you might find yourself unable to identify the brand and location of today’s homogenized fuel stops, uniformly designed for mass market proliferation. They embody the overlooked everyday-ness of their use, characterized by an experience almost devoid of contact with other humans.

How, then, should we approach preservation of such a pervasive vernacular building type that some might liken to a pox on the landscape, a symbol of our dependence on fossil fuels, places actually designed to prevent us from spending time there? However tempting it may be to equate our modern treatment of these spaces with their historic counterparts, presentism will leave us with smudged windshields and empty tanks when it comes to old service stations.

From Gulf to Humble and Magnolia to Texaco, the Texas economy relied heavily on the oil and gas industry in the early twentieth century.  These companies all sold gas under their own brands, and after San Antonio’s last streetcars were removed in 1933, new businesses began emerging that catered to a growing market of automobile owners. The Alamo City was already an established tourist destination, so filling stations were a necessary commodity for families on road trips, just like motor courts and motels. The moniker service station was really appropriate during this time since most had garage bays for mechanical repairs in addition to a standard inventory of fluids, wiper blades, belts/hoses, filters, etc. Each of the thousands of filling stations across the state offered employment opportunities for local mechanics and attendants.

Once you’ve trained your eye to spot historic gas stations, it’s easy to see how important they were to the development of busy corridors like Fredericksburg Road and North St. Mary’s Street. Regional influences on the architectural styles of these structures are expressed through tile roofs, parapets, and stucco siding typical to Spanish Eclectic style stations. Typical branded stations exist as well, with excellent examples of Art Moderne, Craftsman, and Colonial Revival style stations scattered throughout the city. These structures represent a dominant industry in our regional economy, a nationwide shift in transportation patterns to reliance on a personal automobile, and the growing emphasis on corporate branding through design, with the buildings themselves serving as advertisements for their parent company. Marketing techniques also incorporated a variety of trademark freebies such as antenna balls, key chains, glasses, and road maps. Do you have any of these?

Gas stations often appear in pop culture as representations of mid-century Americana. Sometimes they serve as a nostalgic device (Back to the Future, Vacation, Fandango, Toy Story), but they can also provide a setting for destruction (RoboCop, Jurassic Park 2) or suspense-building (No Country for Old Men, Cabin in the Woods). Radiator Springs, the fictional setting for Pixar’s Cars, actually moves the plot forward as the characters struggle to save the cultural landscape from obsolescence after the interstate bypasses the once popular road trip stopover.

So now that we know the significance of the story gas stations can tell about the history of our society, what are we supposed to do with them? A few of them still function, some very successfully, as auto-related businesses like tire and repair shops. But what about the others, the ones left behind when the highway cut through a mile or two away, or tucked into a neighborhood that sees more strollers and dog walkers than Oldsmobiles these days? Luckily enough, a few entrepreneurs, designers, and dedicated placemakers have taken on the challenge of adapting and reusing historic gas stations, right here in San Antonio.

Just last month we celebrated a new designation initiative for historic gas stations in San Antonio – check out the photo gallery to see if you recognize any of them. Over the next few months, many of these sites will become recognized as local landmarks, and become eligible for tax incentives and plaques recognizing their contribution to the history of our community. You can join in the celebration by sharing your favorite historic gas station with us using the Discovery App! Next time you notice one of these vintage fuel stops, just visit bit.ly/ScoutSA, snap a photo, and let us know why it matters to you.

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