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Wisconsin National Register of Historic Places

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Wadham's Gas Station (D. O'Keefe photo, 2003)

Wadham's Gas Station side view (D. O'Keefe photo, 2003)

Wadham's Gas Station interior detail (D. O'Keefe photo, 2003)

Wadham's Gas Station interior detail (D. O'Keefe photo, 2003)

Wadhams Gas Station
1647 South 76th Street
West Allis, Milwaukee County
Architect: Alexander C. Eschweiler, Sr.
Construction Date: 1927

Wadhams Gas Station is a small, well designed, pagoda style, thematic gas station of the 1920s, and a rare reminder of a once prominent regional chain of over 100 pagoda gas stations. Roadside scholars consider Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler's pagoda design to be an iconic design in gas retailing history. His ingenious design married a typical steel-frame, glass-walled gas station box of the period to a swooping pagoda roofline, creating a building that was functional and efficient, as well as eye-grabbing. Eschweiler understood the visual dominance of its roofline in the roadside and used it as a three-dimensional billboard, its color and striking silhouette distinguishing it from the visual clutter of the emerging roadside strip. Its flamboyant roof was instantly recognizable, making the building the centerpiece of Wadhams market image.

This notion of architecture as packaging was novel at the time Eschweiler created the Wadhams pagoda, but spread rapidly through gas station retailing and into the broader vocabulary of roadside design. Thus, McDonald's famous "golden arches" is a direct descendant of 1920s novelty designs like this pagoda. The Wadhams pagoda represents a pioneering effort to tie architecture to corporate image, a retail concept innovated by gas retailers and referred to by Jakle and Sculle in The Gas Station in America as "place-product-packaging." The house-type station acted as a transition between the period of "curbside" gasoline retailing and the corporate "box-type" stations that superceded it.

Harger W. Dodge, who became president of Wadhams Oil Company in 1916, saw the market potential of serving early auto owners, many of whom purchased gasoline in buckets to be stored at home. His solution was to introduce an off street gasoline distribution center or "gas station" to the upper Midwest, where an auto owner could transfer gasoline from underground storage tanks by means of easy to handle mechanical pumps.

The restored Wadhams building is owned and maintained by the city of West Allis. It contains historical displays of petroleum products once sold and equipment used by the previous owners and is a local landmark.


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