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Service Stations

Modern oblong box form with
three service bays. Located
at 3074 East Washington
Avenue in Madison. Courtesy
of Jim Draeger, personal collection.
Gas sales sagged during the Depression.  In an effort to attract customers, oil companies expanded their product line and built a new and very different type of gas station building - the "oblong box."   In contrast to the house form, which was intended to blend in with its surroundings, the oblong box was designed to attract attention.  Drawing inspiration from the International Style, the oblong box featured a streamlined, functional, rectangular form with a flat roof, typically finished with glazed terra cotta (1930s) or porcelain enamel (1940s and 1950s) and painted with the oil company's trademark colors.  The interior integrated an office and storage space.  The addition of service bays, which lured additional customers and increased ancillary sales, was essential to survival.  In order to compete with the modern stations, earlier filling stations were often modified by the addition of service bays and exterior renovation, and some were replaced with a new station.

Around 1960, the exterior details of the oblong box fell out of favor.  Elements such as cedar shakes, brick, broad eaves, wood siding, and darker colors were used to present a ranch style or Colonial Revival exterior appearance while retaining or expanding the oblong box form.  During the 1970s, a new station type was introduced, composed of a large canopy sheltering the pumps and a booth for the attendant.  Today, the oblong box in the form of a convenience store with a monumental, freestanding canopy is typical.

Roadside Highlight: Copeland Service Station

The Copeland Service Station, located at 4924 West Roosevelt Drive in Milwaukee, is an example of the Streamline Moderne style as applied to the oblong box service station.  Constructed in 1939, the Copeland Service Station exhibits the application of new design ideas and the use of a rectilinear form, which divided the space into separate retail and service areas.  The exterior of the station is dominated by a curving corner and horizontal brick bands, which served as a marketing device and capitalized on the public fascination with the streamlined airplanes, locomotives, automobiles, and ocean liners of the period.

Although ubiquitous during their height of popularity, the oblong box form is increasingly rare.  The Copeland Service Station is an example of how a building that has outlived its original function can be reused rather than replaced.  The Copeland Service Station was saved from demolition and is now a popular coffee shop that has undergone extensive restoration.  The owners utilized historic preservation tax credits to assist in its award-winning rehabilitation.

The Copeland Service Station
as Sherman Perk, after
2001 renovation. Courtesy
of the Division of Historic Preservation.

Curved brick corner of the
Copeland Service Station as Sherman
Perk, after 2001 renovation.
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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