A while back I found a 1925 article in Laurel’s Daily Leader that was interesting for the fact that it was an architectural critique, but I wasn’t quite sure how to share it. Fast forward to the research I’ve been doing for the Friday is a Gas series, and a topic has presented itself.
NO LONGER AN EYESORE.
In evolving an architecturally, ornamental gasoline station the architect faces the problem which confronts all innovators for he had no model or precedent from which to work. Probably the only institution of the horse-age to which the filling station can trace its ancestry is the almost obsolete hayscale, but even here the relationship is distant.
Since they had to work from nothing the builders of filling stations may be pardoned if they have failed to create something that is adapted for its purpose and at the same time is not garish and offensive to the eye and destructive of the beauty of the landscape. The early builders were guided by the single thought of convenience and conspicuousness. The result did not represent much of an improvement over the unbeautiful, though picturesque, hayscale and roadside hotdog stand.
However, in more recent months there have been developed several types of filling stations which beautify rather than mar the streets and highways. And they are even more conspicuous and convenient than their unsightly predecessors. The new type of decorative and expensive gas station besides removing old eyesores removes old traffic obstructions by providing facilities off the roadway for the filling of gasoline tanks. It is gratifying that many of the gasoline distributors adopted the ornamental gas station as soon as the architects created It.
-Laurel Daily Leader April 2, 1925
We’ve seen some of the curbside pumps that generated traffic obstructions–above are two examples that were found in 1925 along St. Catherine Street in Natchez. While the buildings are still there [1, 2], the pumps are long gone. These, like all early gas stations, were existing businesses that began offering automobile fuel from conspicuous and convenient curbside pumps in addition to whatever products they were already offering their clientele. In the above Natchez examples, this appears to be shoes and groceries. Since reading the Daily Leader article, I had been curious as to the stations referred to as having been developed in “recent months” described as decorative and expensive (to erect) while remaining conspicuous, and convenient. A possible answer to my questions emerged when I came across the digitized “Scrapbook of Hattiesburg” in the Local History Collection of the Library of Hattiesburg, Petal, and Forrest County. While it contains mostly postcards and business letterhead clippings, the scrapbook does contain three original photographs of gas stations in and around Hattiesburg c.1932.
One of the stations depicted in the scrapbook is the American Oil Company’s Main Street Service Station that was initially constructed in 1923. This gave me some information to further research a station that was an “architecturally, ornamental gasoline station” that a Mississippi architect had successfully developed. The following is a portion of an article from the opening of the American Oil Company Main Street Service Station in 1923.
NEW STATION OF AMERICAN OIL IS OPEN TODAY.
Hattiesburg motorists were given something in the nature of an unusual and pleasant treat today when the Main Street Service Station, operated by Bolton and Busby, opened for business…
In taking possession of the Main Street Service Station, the concern gets the benefit of what is probably the most beautiful gasoline and oil filling station in the state of Mississippi [emphasis added], and also acquires one of the most desirable locations in the city.
The American Oil Company of this city, purchased the property on the corner of Main and Baston streets, upon which the filling station is located and erected the building at a cost of approximately $25,000. R.W. Dunn, manager of the American company, admits that the property is of a value much greater than that of the ordinary filling station but brings out the point that this is not an ordinary station.
The entire lot has been paved and affords entrance and egress from either Main or Batson streets. There are three entrances and exits on Batson street and one on Main. [T]he building is an attractive combination of white stucco and red face brick, planned by R.E. Lee, and constructed under the supervision of Robert Hendricks. It has two sheltered driveways easily accessible to the gasoline and oil pumps, an office and sales room that is stocked with a line of automobile parts and accessories for all cars except Fords, and a woman’s [sic] rest room that is one of the best features connected with the place.
– Hattiesburg American February 22, 1923
It sounds like a pretty typical station today, but these are new ideas nearly 100 years ago that were coming to bear: a corner lot, paved, with multiple ingress and egress points, multiple pumps, and a tidy, attractive edifice with a sales room. At first I thought the line “parts and accessories for all cars except Fords” might be a dig a Ford vehicles, but then recalled that this station was adjacent to a massive Ford dealership, and would not likely be able to undercut the dealer prices, but they could catch Ford customers both coming and going on fuel.
A December 14, 1922, Hattisburg American article on the station’s construction cites Bob Hendrix as the contractor and that the “building will be made of red face brick and white stucco, with a red Spanish title [sic] roof. R. E. Lee, the architect, who planned the building, says it will be one the most beautiful of its kind that has ever been erected in the entire south.” R. W. Dunn, manager of the American Oil Company was quoted as saying that “plans to erect a modern wash rack had been completed.” I’m not sure if this rack was to be enclosed, but the service bays seen in the photographs of the station were not constructed in 1923 and still not in place by 1925 based on the Sanborn map of that year. Since Hattiesburg architect Robt. E. Lee passed away in 1925, it makes me wonder if the service bays that were built were that of his 1923 design?
On October 1, 1923, Charles T. Dabbs took over the lease of the station from Bolton & Busby. Dabbs would grow the station; by 1926 he had added a service bay with “a modern hydraulic greasing and washing rack” seen to the right of the building in the historic photos. He would increase the number of pumps from the original two, to four by 1927, and added a fifth pump c.1932. By 1949 the station was demolished for the building that currently occupies the site. Dabbs became a construction contractor, moving to Long Beach c. 1957. He passed away in 1965 and is buried in Gulfport.
American Oil Company was a Hattiesburg based oil and gas distributor established in 1921 that was described in a 1925 Hattiesburg American as “the biggest independently State-owned organization in Mississippi.”
So what do you think? Was R. E. Lee correct in his boast that it was “one the most beautiful of its kind that has ever been erected in the entire south” or is that just a salesman’s hyperbole? Was this building conspicuous, convenient, while still being visually appealing? Or was it still an eyesore?
Postscript: I ran across this former station on Front Street in Ellisville, Mississippi. It was built prior to the town’s 1926 Sanborn Insurance Map. I haven’t had an opportunity to research the building but it has several similarities to the Main Street Service Station in Hattiesburg.