Frank Lloyd Wright Hits the Gas (filling stations, Cloquet (MN) and Buffalo (NY), USA)

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is one of those famous architects whose name has become known in the wider world. I know this because my sister (not a core reader of this blog) has a coffee-table book about Lloyd Wright’s works, and also because Simon and Garfunkel wrote a song about him. If you’re not familiar with him, he was responsible for a substantial body of work mostly in America, but also in Japan. He is very difficult to classify. There’s an Arts and Crafts influence in there, but he also designed in something called the Prairie Style, his famous house Fallingwater (built over a waterfall) is an example of Organic Architecture (which attempts to harmonise with the natural environment), while his beautiful stained glass is very Art Deco. Arguably his most famous building is New York’s Guggenheim Museum, a Modernist circular structure which contains a single long gallery, spiralling upwards through the building.

But what does this have to do with transport? Well, I’m glad you asked. For a start, Wright built a couple of railroad stations. The first and most dramatic was the 1909 Peter C. Stohr Arcade Building in Chicago (IL). The second was the rather more modest station at Greenbay Road, Glencoe (IL). You might also find him credited with designing Nikko station in Japan (see a picture here), but it doesn’t have any obvious Wright features, and it appears likely that this is a internet-based misattributation (beware ‘facts’ on the internet…) as suggested here.

But it’s not for railroads that Wright makes an appearance in this week’s blog entry. Frank Lloyd Wright had an obsession, you see, and that obsession was called Broadacre.

Broadacre model at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photo by A. A. Conti [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page.
Broadacre model at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photo by A. A. Conti [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Broadacre City was Wright’s idea of the perfect urban development, and he worked on it (on and off) for years. Despite its name Broadacre City was a giant suburb, essentially the opposite of a city, with very low population density spread across a huge area. It was a simple concept in which everyone would live on a one-acre (minimum) plot of land, with a little Frank Lloyd Wright house in each plot, linked by a grid pattern of connecting roads. Compared to the conditions in American cities in the early decades of the 20th Century (he didn’t like New York, despite designing the Guggenheim Museum) Broadacre would have been a utopian and appealing prospect. The trouble was, this utopia was a first and foremost a motopia. It might have been amongst the first, but it certainly wasn’t the last. It was wholly designed around car travel. Beyond your plot of land, you would need to move around by car. Walking was absolutely not to be encouraged. Neither were there to be railroads, nor streetcars (“No poles / No wires in sight” was Wright’s summation).

And what did Wright imagine that the hubs of this new community would be? Given that everyone in Broadacre was supposed to be living insular lives in which many services and entertainments were delivered to the home, reducing the need to travel in the first place (an idea as wrong-headed then as it is now, which is why transport usage has actually been going up despite more and more people having access to the internet), you might well wonder. But Wright had an answer. Gas stations.

Yes, those places that we now can’t wait to get out of, are the places that Lloyd Wright conceived of as “distributing centers for merchandise of all sorts” (the quote is from this write-up of the Broadacre concept). He expected people to dally in his new vision for the “crude and insignificant” gas stations he observed, to meet and greet, to relax. These were to be beautiful versions of what, until then, had been basic and mundane structures. Rather happily for students of aesthetic transport design, about the only piece of Broadacre Wright ever managed to get built was one of this new breed of gas stations. Here it is:

By Jonathunder (Own work) [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons
The R. W. Lindholm filling station in Cloquet (MN). Note the staircase behind the pole – you’ll be seeing something similar later on. By Jonathunder (Own work) [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

You can find it in Cloquet (MN), where it survives remarkably little changed to this day; it’s now on the National Register for Historic Places. It was originally built for Ray W. Lindholm, a local businessman whose house Wright had designed in 1952. Being a rather smart salesman, and noticing that Lindholm owned a filling station, Wright suggested that Lindholm’s station could also do with the Frank Lloyd Wright treatment. Thanks to his work on Broadacre, he had a design ready to go. By 1958, the new R. W. Lindholm filling station was open, admittedly at several times the cost of a conventional filling station, but Lindholm was up for it, suggesting, “it was an experiment to see if a little beauty couldn’t be incorporated in something as commonplace as a service station.” And why not?

It features a copper roof, topped by a 60 ft pylon. The concrete-block walls are subtly stepped back every third row, which gives a bit of heft to the bottom of the building, counterbalancing the gigantic cantilever of the roof. The latter very effectively keeps the snow off the forecourt, while the pitch of the roof stops the snow piling up, so it’s not just for show.

On the first floor is an observation lounge, the community hub that Lloyd Wright envisioned made manifest. It never really worked out that way, but it was a brave attempt to make filling stations something other than splash-and-dash locales. Imagine the thinking that went into providing the observation deck, on the assumption that you would want to watch your automobile being fuelled up from these stylish surroundings. Cypress wood fittings can be found throughout the building.

Photo by Mike Barton [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Interior of the observation lounge. Photo by Mike Barton [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Originally, Wright had wanted to use gravity-fed hoses and nozzles to fill up the cars, but had to settle for a more conventional scheme of ground-level pumps because of safety regulations. He had been obsessing about gravity-fed filling system since the 1920s. In the late 1920s he completed a number of building commissions in Buffalo (NY). Noticing that the Tydol oil company was planning to open a new filling station in the city, Wright (who even this early in his career had conceived his idea that gas stations should be beautiful places where people would come together and be happy to spend periods of time) proposed a high quality design. It featured two 45-foot totem poles, an L-shaped copper roof (the same material he would later use in Cloquet), a first floor observation lounge (identifiably the forerunner of the one at the R. W. Lindholm filling station), and gravity-fed nozzles. Unfortunately, Wright’s desire to commercialise what he hoped would be a substantial series of repeat orders for Tydol filling stations across the country overcame his business acumen. Seeking a commission on each service station built to his design, Wright comprehensively priced his new model filling station out of the market. Tydol instead built a crude and basic filling station in Buffalo instead, and it took another 30 years before Wright was to see his vision for the American filling station achieve built form in Cloquet.

The R.W. Lindholm filling station in Cloquet traded for many years on its status as the “World’s Only Frank Lloyd Wright Service Station” (see the sign in this picture). That’s now only partially true. It’s certainly the only working service station that Wright designed, and the only one he completed during his lifetime. But just this year, the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum has completed construction of Wright’s gas station design for Tydol within its galleries.

Photo by Ron Frazier [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The Buffalo filling station at Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum. Photo by Ron Frazier [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

The walls of this earlier gas station design are more obviously sculptural than those at the Cloquet filling station. The two totems turn out somehow to lack the visual impact you might expect, because they’re so slender (though their chevron patterning is classic Wright). The design of the stairs, spilling down the side of the main building, has a lot in common with the arrengement Wright would later useat Cloquet. But the design highlight of the Buffalo filling station is the fixings for the gravity-feed gasoline delivery system. You can see why Wright was drawn to this method of delivery, with the gasoline exiting the filling station’s structure through lantern-like copper and glass fixings to which hoses and nozzles are attached.

Photo by Ron Frazier [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The Buffalo filling station at Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, Photo by Ron Frazier [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Ironically, we eventually got degraded versions of Broadacre’s motopia, in the form of car-dominated cities like Los Angeles, with its massive low-density suburban sprawl and pedestrian-unfriendly environment. But hardly ever has the world seen filling stations which have the inherent architectural quality of Wright’s designs, which is all the more remarkable given the ubiquity of such places. They are buildings which most of us repeatedly and frequently visit, essential locations in the maintenance of our own personal mobility. Wright was right about the key role they would come to play in modern life. But he failed to predict how unattractive they would turn out to be in the modern world. Rather than being places at which to socialise, and linger in comfort, they are never places we want to stay at for longer than necessary. We’ve somehow missed the trick that Frank Lloyd Wright first identified nearly 90 years ago.

how to find Frank Lloyd Wright’s filling stations

Click here for the R. W. Lindholm filling station

Click here for the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum

references and further reading

local TV News report on the construction of the Buffalo filling station, here

National Register for Historic Places citation for the R. W. Lindholm filling station, here

…and, of course, anything linked to in the main text above.

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