Old filling stations finding new life (and welcome publicity)

"Alone Time"; abandoned filling station, Route 66 USA. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images (pinning is okay).

“Alone Time”
Oklahoma, Route 66

Time and again I’ve been completely unable to resist yammering on about the nearly endless possibilities lying dormant in abandoned old service stations. To my mind, their smallish footprint and often stylish, charming, Americana appearance make them a fine opportunity for entrepreneurs of various stripes, and every time I see one, my mind scampers off in fifteen different directions regarding prospects for their future. Happily, others are of the very same bent (and have the capital to do something about it)!

Although the population and the number of cars have increased, there’s been an 8.2% decline in the number of gas stations throughout the country from 2002 to 2012, according to National Petroleum News’ MarketFacts 2012.

"Crumbs": Abandoned filling/service station on Route 66 in Baxter Springs, KS. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images (pinning to this page is okay)

“Crumbs”
Baxter Springs, Kansas

Dunham-Jones, who studies adaptive reuse of many types of buildings, said gas stations repurposed into eateries tend to be near residential neighborhoods — and many of those households do not have kids at home, she said. That makes aging gas stations, strip malls and office parks prime sites for the eateries and coffee shops where they now spend their time.

“More people are eating out. And, instead of the school as the anchor of social life, those childless households are eager for more alternatives and options of places where they can be social,” Dunham-Jones said.

It might also be noted that with many women working outside the home, fewer have the time, energy, or even inclination to cook dinner at night (alas—so sad, really), which only helps restaurants do more business today than they did in the past. That more and more people recognize the importance of supporting small, locally-owned businesses works in the favour of such new restaurants as well. One restaurant owner featured in the article noted that 90% of their business lives within walking distance.

What makes me especially happy about the article, which I found thanks to Ron over at Route 66 News, is that not only are these old gas stations chosen for prime locations, they’re selected because of their good looks. Proprietor after proprietor in the article mentions the attractiveness of these (usually) small buildings. Still better, entrepreneurs like Justin Haynie of Atlanta’s Diesel Filling Station note the importance of keeping these pieces of our past around, even if they do happen to serve a new purpose:

Haynie said he believes the building will withstand the test of time because the original Pure Oil structure has been preserved throughout the years.

“There is something to be said about keeping our history intact — locations such as Diesel are being torn down on a daily basis,” he said. “You can’t ‘build’ history, nor can you recreate it.

“I think people see the space and are intrigued by it. It’s got that old charm to it and people really want to experience it and see what it’s all about.”

Oh yeah!

Niangua Guardian. 1925 filling station on Route 66 in Missouri. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images (pinning to this page is okay).

1925 filling station on 66 in Missouri. A charmer, isn’t she?

Of course, years ago, some filling station owners offered homemade sandwiches, baked goods, and other food to travellers who stopped to gas up; you’ll recall such scenes from Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath. Not only did this give travellers something to eat, it was evidence of smart service station owners (or their wives) realizing there was a little extra money to be made by offering such things; moreover, the memory of eating a fresh sandwich pulled from wax-paper wrapping must be a happy one for many people. So seeing old gas stations turned into restaurants really does seem to bring things full circle, doesn’t it?

"Canopy": Vinsetta Garage, Berkley, Michigan. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved (pinning to this page is okay)

“Canopy”
The Vinsetta Garage in Berkley, Michigan—which I often walked by on my way to Westborn for food—is now a popular Woodward Avenue restaurant & bar. Way to go! (Note the 3″ of solid ice on the drive. I was wearing heels. Don’t believe me when I tell you I’m not “really” crazy.)

I do wish the understandable necessity of removing or plugging the old gas tanks and the high cost of multiple soil tests could be somehow made less burdensome to the new owners (I’m not saying this doesn’t need to be done, but the work and cost is extremely daunting, making these business owners all the more impressive). This would certainly mean more such stations would find new life as a restaurant, bar, or other sort of shop, and any of these are likely to bring jobs and a fair amount of revenue into town while preserving these early- and mid-century icons of America’s love affair with the automobile and open road. Many of the comments on the CNN article mention this barrier to economic improvement and, yes, preservation, and it really is a big one.

San Jon Welding, New Mexico Route 66. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved (though pinning to this page is okay)

Even so, seeing old service & gas stations turned into restaurants, wine bars, and bakeries is evidence of steps in the right direction—and so is the publicity garnered by such steps, because it will encourage more people to see these places as assets, not mere dumps or liabilities. What do you think? Are there any old service stations near you that you’d love to see turned into something fresh—and what would you do with it if you had the dough? There’s a fair chance I’ll return to this shortly, and I’d love your thoughts and even photos if you’d like me to share them with others. Keep your eyes peeled and brain churning!

Chris' Auto Repair, Route 66, NM. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Drive-by shot of Chris’ Auto Repair in New Mexico. Sometimes even I have to grab photos on the fly!

A wink & smile to Ron at Route 66 News for originally posting the CNN article!

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6 thoughts on “Old filling stations finding new life (and welcome publicity)

  1. I loved everything about this post–not to mention that I am absolutely determined to eat at Vinsetta Garage the next time I visit my Mom in Ann Arbor–it looks amazing!!!

  2. You are such a captivatingly lovely wordsmith, dear Jen. I greatly enjoyed this ode to long forgotten service stations (which, interestingly, one very rarely sees in Canada – at least in my part of it, I can’t speak for the whole country) and truly hope that more will continue to be revamped and given a new lease on life.

    ♥ Jessica

    • Thank you so much, Jessica, your words are too kind! It surprises me that you haven’t that many in your part of Canada—I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a handful in Ontario, but have never been further into the country than that. Someone on Twitter was talking about an old abandoned bank in her town she wishes someone would buy and re-use—I think those are great candidates as well.

  3. Pingback: Visiting the octagon vintage filling station in Delaware, Ohio | Victory Rolls and V8s

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