Frank Lloyd Wright’s Filling Station Rises in Buffalo

FrankA transportation museum in the Queen City is putting the final touches on Frank Lloyd Wright’s first service station design, providing a glimpse of how modern service stations evolved.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

Before Route 66 was designated Historic Route 66, and well before convenience stores offered the first Gas Station TV monitors above gas pumps, service stations were little more than dirt lots with a single pump and a small shack for the working attendant.

Enter celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who viewed gas stations as critical transportation components that would help transform American communities into something resembling Broadacre City, his concept of a decentralized urban landscape.

Putting his thoughts to paper almost 90 years ago, Wright’s service station offered a variety of customer services in addition to gas sales—much in line with how modern c-stores operate today. That structure—resembling nothing seen in the industry before or since—is now on exhibit at the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum in Buffalo, N.Y.

Pride of Buffalo
Now “99% done,” the service station will also house period products from 1927, including oil cans, automotive accessories and other products that would have been available at the time—a precursor to most modern business plans based on the premise that c-store customers want convenient products and timely services. The mockup service station is the centerpiece of the museum’s new $10 million, 35,000-square-foot addition.

Both the transportation museum and Wright’s service station are the creation of James Sandoro, the museum’s founder and owner, who brought the gas station to life from rough architectural renderings. Built as an exhibit, the flesh-colored concrete and copper-crafted building is life-sized, but not functional because Wright’s fueling design flies in the face of modern fire codes.

Still, the reproduction has a project cost of more than $1 million and is sure to lure architecture aficionados and transportation tourists alike. It also tells the story of Wright’s relationship with the city, according to Sandoro.

“It was meant for Buffalo,” Sandoro said. “It’s one of the most unique buildings he ever designed. Plus, he was forced into this because of his economic problems.”

The plans for the Buffalo service station were discovered among letters between Wright and a prominent Buffalo businessman named Darwin Martin, for whom Wright built two private homes in the area. Wright’s most important local client, Martin had taken ownership of the Elmer E. Harris Co., operator of gas stations and a franchisee of the Tidewater Oil Co.—better known as Tydol.

Tidewater Oil was best known for its Flying A-branded products and gas stations, and for Veedol motor oil, which was the brand chosen by Henry Ford to lubricate the Model ‘T’ Ford. They lasted until the 1930s when Tidewater Oil was taken over by another company, today’s ExxonMobil.

Martin suggested that Wright design the Buffalo station, which in those days was typically a single pump and an outhouse. Plans called for the station to be located at the corner of Cherry Street and Michigan Avenue—now in the shadow of the Kensington Expressway, just a few blocks from the museum.

The Buffalo site might have been the first in a network of Wright-designed filling stations, mixing his radical design concepts with America’s growing fancy for travel.
“Wright liked cars,” said Wisconsin-based architect and Wright apprentice Anthony Puttnam. “He grew up around horses and carriages. So when transportation systems began to develop he saw great value in the automobile.”

Wright’s unintentional salute to the future vision and innovation that would mark today’s c-store industry is on full display.

Defying Gravity
Among the unique features of the station are two copper-lined, cantilevered canopies jutting from either side. There are no supporting columns because Wright wanted patrons to have open access into the station. He also eliminated the obstruction of pump islands.

Instead, blue, red and white colored hoses extend from the cantilevered canopy. Gasoline was to be pumped from the retractable hoses descending from overhead fueling compartments.

According to Puttnam, the gravity-fed gasoline system wouldn’t meet today’s safety standards, not to mention the fireplace designed into the second-story observation room where patrons had a comfortable place to wait and watch as their vehicles were fixed.

Cantilevered roofing was a characteristic found in some of Wright’s designs, said Puttman, who served as a consultant on the Buffalo museum exhibition.
The 1927 design also had innovations like a ladies’ restroom and sleeping quarters for the mechanic.

Towering above the second story is a pair of 49-foot-tall, copper-covered pylons, which in the rendering is referred to as totems. In between the twin poles is the Wright-designed, LED-powered Tydol Oil sign, rivaling today’s most flashy superstore signage. Originally, the sign was to be neon, but would have been too heavy to suspend in the air.

In the end, Wright’s filling station never got off the ground in Buffalo. At the princely sum of $3,400—$1,700 for construction costs and another $1,700 for Wright’s fee—the station was deemed too expensive to construct, Sandoro said.

The only working service station designed by Wright is the R.W. Lindholm Service Station in Cloquet, Minn. built in 1956. It’s less grand than the museum model, built with more modest materials instead.

A youngster in Buffalo, Sandoro lived near the Wright-designed Darwin Martin House complex and was familiar with the architect’s tie to the Queen City.

Plan By Design
It was only when he was working in Scottsdale and at an automobile auction house now known as the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction, that Sandoro made the connection between his hometown and Wright’s service station. He was visiting Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and architectural laboratory when he learned of the futuristic filling station.
Thumbing through thousands of drawings, Sandoro came upon the renderings for the Tydol project. Wright’s plans for constructing the filling station just down the road from the original site were approved by the foundation, giving Sandoro the green light.

The filling station was to be built outdoors, but the occasional strong winds that blow off Lake Erie, blustery winters and fear of copper thefts led to the choice of a climate-controlled setting inside the museum’s 60-foot-high glass-and-steel atrium.

Significant donations of labor and materials considerably lowered the projected $1 million price tag. Alp Steel, a local company, saved the project $350,000 by providing hundreds of pieces of bolted steel and Revere Copper Products Inc. of Rome, N.Y. donated much of the copper.Flexlume Sign made the glowing LED signage at no cost.
Beginning work in late 2012, the project is now nearing completion. The official opening is scheduled for June 27.

Reflecting various partnerships spanning almost 90 years, the copper and concrete structure that reflects Wright at his most conceptual, is sure to strike a chord with visitors, Sandoro said.

“There are all kinds of cool things behind his madness,” Sandoro said. “He was just so far ahead of everybody else.”

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