Gulf’s Revolution

July 6, 2022

I worked at a gas station in Pittsburgh during grad school, and since this is our mobility issue, let’s talk about the pump.

Not gas prices. I don’t have enough space here for that. I’m talking about the gas station industry, and its influence on what we see while driving on America’s roads.

I worked at a station along Baum Boulevard, which is part of the old Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road that linked New York’s Times Square with San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.

Once known as “Auto Row,” Baum Boulevard was home to the first architecturally designed, drive-in gas station. Gulf opened these pumps on Dec. 1, 1913, on the corner of Baum and Saint Clair Street.

Before Gulf, gas stations were crude and rudimentary. Most were in dirt lots, with large, above-ground tanks. The men who worked there wore tattered clothes, and their office was usually a shanty built with scrap metal.

These gas stations smelled awful, and there were a lot of fires. Early motorists didn’t want gas stations in their neighborhood, even though they were the only ones who could afford cars at the time.

Gulf’s actions don’t sound revolutionary to our 2022 ears. However, Gulf gave birth to an industry and influenced how the American roadside looks. They gave employees a uniform and hired an architect to design a paved, corner lot that included two entrances, underground gas tanks, and a brick, hexagonal office that matched the neighboring homes in the city’s East End.

Each additional Gulf location used the same blueprint, same uniforms. Other industries copied Gulf’s lead, and today, chains like Motel 6, McDonald’s, and Home Depot look the same no matter where you go.

Some people dislike this. It was the same way in 1914. As Gulf opened more prefabricated gas stations, some companies chose opulence. Rival stations had Greek columns or were shaped like teapots, dinosaurs, and boots.

As the century rolled on, and the American roadway expanded, the cheaper, prefabricated designs won.

These cookie-cutter stations gave America the mobility it enjoys today. Of course, the industry didn’t stop there. It continues to evolve. Today’s gas stations are often massive, with 16 to 24 pumps. And when you step into the convenience store, you can buy just about anything you want: tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, fast-food, phone chargers, clothes.

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright loved gas stations, and he predicted the current state of the industry. He said they would be “the future city in embryo,” which would “naturally grow into a neighborhood distribution center, meeting-place, restaurant… or whatever else is needed.”

And now a lot of chains have charging stations for electric vehicles. Imagine what gas stations will look like in 10 years from now? Or 25 years?

I guarantee that however they look, they will influence our roads (and vice versa).