Gas stations are the underappreciated heroes of our world. We all use them, and yet they get absolutely no recognition for the role they play in keeping us moving. Everyone remembers their trip to the Grand Canyon, but no one recalls the Citgo they stopped at to get there. This is in part due to the fact that most gas stations are completely unremarkable, cookie-cutter squares of buildings worth nothing more than a quick fill-up and a snack. Every once in a while, though, a service station will break the mold become an attraction in itself. Today, we’re going to look at some of these head-turning fuel stops, both past and present.
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POPS – The Soda King
For decades, faithful road trippers have made the pilgrimage down Route 66 to see antique America in all its glory. However, it’s a new attraction (opened in 2007) rather than an old one that makes this list. POPS is a combination gas station, restaurant, and (above all) soda shop that brings the small Oklahoma town of Arcadia (see map) roaring back onto the map. The gas station has a sleek, modern design, but the real showpiece is the massive metal soda bottle that draws thirsty visitors off the road. At exactly 66 feet tall, the mammoth bottle pays homage to its Mother Road.
The real fun, of course, is inside. POPS is an absolute mecca for America’s fizzy drinks. They offer over 1,200 different types of soda, which can be mixed and matched for maximum variety down the road. And when I say variety, I mean variety. You want Dirt Soda? They got it. Peanut Butter and Jelly flavored? Help yourself. Beef Jerky in a bottle? Go for it. Definitely worth the fuel stop, both for your car and your stomach!
The big bottle. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Hollow Mountain – Exactly What It Sounds Like
There’s a Phillips 66 station nestled into the red rock town of Hanksville, Utah (see map). Literally, nestled into the rock. While the gas station itself remains outside, the convenience store of the station is located entirely inside a small rock mountain! Visitors can see the bare rock while shopping for snacks, or take a pit stop in the massive restrooms carved into the sandstone. The gas station started as a necessary stop on the way to Lake Powell, but has become an attraction in its own right, sort of a poor man’s Hole ‘N the Rock.
Hollow Mountain was the brainchild of a uranium miner named Harry Thompson. In 1984, Thompson bought the lot where the gas station now stands. The problem was, nearly all of his new lot was blocked by a solid slab of sandstone. Using his mining experience, Thompson blasted away enough space for the gas pumps before spending 2 months tunneling into the rock itself. The manmade cave would become the convenience store, and was expanded in 1996 to include the massive restrooms. Certainly a unique fill-up experience!
Pointing to the tunnel. Photo by LeeAnne Adams on Flickr (cc)
R.W. Lindholm – An Architectural Marvel
The R.W. Lindholm Service Station is situated in the Duluth suburb of Cloquet, Minnesota (see map). This station may not be the visual standout that the first two entries are, and yet it’s certainly a more interesting design than most other gas stations. A gravity-defying cantilevered canopy sits perched above the gas pumps, while shoppers inside can view their parked cars through a massive, glass-walled lounge. However, the wacky architecture of this station may not have been enough to earn it a spot on the list if not for the name attached to it. See, R.W. Lindholm is the only gas stationed designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright is probably the most famous American architect of all time, so why did he choose to put his stamp on a mere gas station? The answer lies in one of his grand visions, Broadacre City. Wright imagined building a new type of urban area, one without an urban core where commuters could find everything they wanted close to home. One of the central points of this plan was to make the humble gas station a central part of the community. That’s why Wright designed the grand lounge here; he imagined it to be a sort of mini-community center. Unfortunately, Wright was never able to fully build his visionary city, and this gas station remains the only one he ever designed.
The station, back when the sign recognized its creator. Via Wikimedia Commons.
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Relics from the Past
Teapot Dome – The Station, Not the Scandal
Teapot Dome was regarded as the largest scandal in US history until Watergate broke. The 1922 scandal involved one of President Warren Harding’s cabinet members taking bribes to give favorable land leases to oil companies, including one near Teapot Dome in Wyoming. The scandal was the center of national discussion for years, so it’s no surprise that at least one business owner attempted to cash in on it. So began the Teapot Dome Service Station in Zillah, Washington (see map). In true entrepreneurial fashion, it’s shaped just like a teapot to poke fun at the scandal.
The little teapot continued to serve customers for an astonishingly long time – it was even relocated to accommodate the arrival of an interstate in 1978. For a time, it was billed as the longest continuously operating gas station in the US. Finally, in 2007, operations at the teapot ceased. The building, complete with its antique pumps, was relocated again to a small park in 2012, where it continues to enjoy retirement and attract visitors today.
The Teapot Dome when it was still in service. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Conoco Tower – A Route 66 Icon
If POPS is the cool new kid on the block of Route 66, the Conoco Tower Station in Shamrock, Texas (see map) is the wily old veteran. The station includes the old U-Drop-Inn, an all-American restaurant attached to the fueling area. The Tower Station is appropriately named – its centerpiece is a 4-story-tall spire that spells out “Conoco” on each side. But I don’t need to spell out the rest of the design for you, since you can see it in the movies: this station was the inspiration for the body shop in the Pixar movie Cars.
The station was designed in 1936 by J.C. Berry, who got his idea from a nail hammered into the ground. Berry drew his grand design in the dirt of a nearby parking lot, and he and some friends got to work building. The roadside masterpiece served countless cross-country customers from 1936 to 1997, when the reduced business from the diversion of traffic on I-40 finally caught up to it. Today, the building has been beautifully restored, and now operates as Shamrock’s Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. You can even buy a root beer float from the café to get a genuine shot of Route 66 nostalgia!
A slice of pure Americana. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A Literal Shell Station
Back in the 1920s, the automotive industry was exploding, and with it the need for gas stations. Shell was one of the main providers of these stations, but was in a heated competition with other brands to capture the most business. One local distributor out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina (see map), R.H. Burton, had the perfect idea to increase brand awareness. Customers might not know what Sinclair or Standard Oil was, but they’d sure as heck know a Shell when they saw one!
Burton set about building literal shell-shaped stations. At the heyday of these conch-like convenience stops, there were 8 scattered around greater Winston-Salem. Today, only one example built in 1930 survives. While the Shell stopped pumping gas a while ago, it was recently preserved (down to the original, bright yellow paint job) and is a great stop for a photo op and free advertising for Shell.