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Exotic and Fantastic

Exotic- and Fantastic-style filling and service stations were designed to catch the attention of the passing motorist and detract from the competition.  Included in this category are stations that utilized exotic architectural styles and those that incorporated or resembled fantastic forms, such as airplanes, boats, tepees, and castles, among others.

Foreign influences can be seen in the design of the exotic stations, which were constructed to represent pyramids, windmills, and oriental designs.  In Wisconsin, the Wadham's Oil Company used a pagoda-inspired design to catch the attention of consumers.  These iconographic stations greatly influenced commercial strip design after World War II and are the precursors to the bold designs of modern fast-food architecture.


The Badger Country Gas Station
as it appeared in 1998. The
building beneath the badger
has been removed and the
"log" converted into a truck
garage. Courtesy of Jim
Draeger, personal collection.

The Dutch Mill Filling Station
at Phil's Lake Nokomis Resort
in Heafford Junction, Wisconsin
, is an example of the fantastic form.
Courtesy of Jim Draeger,
personal collection.

Roadside Highlight: Wadham's Pagoda Style

The Wadham's Oil and Grease Company of Milwaukee operated exclusively in Wisconsin, although the refinery was located in Indiana.  The company's pagoda-inspired stations are a regional example of gas station imagery used as a marketing device.  The eastern design appealed to a romantic sense of exotica and adventure, and caught the attention of the passing motorist.   Over 100 of these stations were constructed in Wisconsin between 1917 and 1930.  Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler, known for his period revival designs, created an ornate and exotic three-dimensional billboard of a roof anchored to a functionalist and modernist base for an attention-grabbing design.  Some stations were larger than others and had varying floor plans, but the red-stamped metal tile pagoda roof with flared eaves and the red, yellow, and black color scheme served as the company trademark.

Although many of these stations were constructed in the state, the majority have been removed.  Examples remain in Milwaukee and Cedarburg.

The Cedarburg station is located in the Washington Avenue Historic District (listed in the National Register January 17, 1986).  It was constructed in 1926 and features the trademark pagoda-style roof with a cupola located at the ridge.  Large, plate-glass windows surround the central entrance.  Multi-pane windows light the entire side wall.  Japanese lanterns were suspended from the cupola roof, adding to the exotic appeal.  The building has been converted into a jewelry store, but it retains much of the original exterior.


Historic postcard image of
the Wadham's Service Station
located at North 27th Street
and West Wisconsin Avenue in
Milwaukee. Courtesy of Jim Draeger,
personal collection.


Wadham's Service Station as
it appeared in 1986, located
in the Washington Avenue
Historic District in Cedarburg
. Courtesy of the Division of
Historic Preservation.

Interested in learning more about Wisconsin gas stations? Check out the new Wisconsin Public Television program that looks at vintage gas stations as icons of architecture, economics and pop culture. Fill'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations is a collaborative effort of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Public Television.
And watch for the Fill 'er Up Companion Book  from WHS Press by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz. This book visits 60 Wisconsin gas stations still standing today and will be available in 2008.
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