Fill ‘er Up

I’m guessing most people, myself included, haven’t given much thought to the evolving architecture of gas stations. We’re more likely obsessed with the rising and falling numbers on the pump than we are with the buildings where we refuel our cars–we hurry through, we pay outside, we find ways to stretch the time between visits.
But last December, after seeing Christopher Robleski’s photo of a vintage filling station in PortalWisconsin.org’s Flickr pool (below), I wanted to learn more about these wayside relics. The quaint Wadham’s Oil and Grease Station he captured on film looked more like an Asian temple than the convenience marts we’re familiar with today.
The Wadham's Oil and Grease Company pagoda in West Allis has been preserved. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

Wadham's Oil and Grease Station in West Allis was preserved and converted to an automotive museum. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

On his Flickr page, photographer Robleski adds an accompanying description: “Famous Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler’s Wadhams Gas Station design is considered to be iconic. His ingenious design married typical steel frame, glass walled, box-like gas station to a swooping roofline, creating a building that was functional and efficient, as well as, eye grabbing.” While this gas station closed in 1978, the building was preserved by the West Allis Historical Commission and now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

I later learned that Eschweiler’s pagoda design dotted the streets of Milwaukee for a time: more than 100 of them were built in the 1920s and 30s, but very few remain. (In fact, here lie the remnants of another Wadham’s, a link Mr. Robleski sent me in an email.) Other gas stations, designed to meet changes in the ways Americans worked and played and spent, disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Now, two Wisconsin historians have made a mission of locating and documenting the buildings that have survived. Jim Draeger’s and Mark Speltz’s book Fill ’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations , a companion to the Wisconsin Public Television special of the same name, chronicles gas station history from the advent of the automotive era. The book’s second section provides insightful depictions of 59 historic stations throughout the state.

WPT and the Wisconsin Historical Society partnered in 2007 to produce the tv program Fill ’er Up. Though the show hasn’t aired since last year, you can watch it all online at WPT’s Web site–or you can purchase the DVD at the station’s online store. There’s a nice corresponding Web site as well.

And Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller spoke with co-authors Draeger and Speltz on a broadcast of his show airing September 29, 2008. You can still listen to this program at WPR’s audio archives. (I used the search term “Draeger.”) The interactive element of the call-in show complements the other resources nicely, with listeners adding their own stories about the filling stations in their regions.

Right now, the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison has a Fill ‘er Up exhibit of photographs and memorabilia on display through June 20. Anyone attending the Cars on State Classic Car Show on May 9 should definitely plan a side trip to the museum. (You’ll stroll right past it, as the museum is located on the Capitol end of State Street.)

If you still haven’t had your fill, Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz have a blog, Fuelish Thoughts: Wisconsin Gas Stations, and they continue to appear around the state to discuss their book. PortalWisconsin.org’s events calendar has all the dates.

We’d love to hear from you, too. Do you have one of these architectural icons in your area? What do you think 21st century gas stations will later tell us about our culture and values? You can post your thoughts and your gas station memories right here at Portal Wisconsin’s blog. Start the conversation!

–Tammy Kempfert

One Response to Fill ‘er Up

  1. Tammy Kempfert says:

    I just learned that “Fill ‘Er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations” will air again on Wisconsin Public Television next month–10:30 p.m., July 12.

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