The expressway construction craze that began in the 1950s was not kind to traditional downtown districts, including that of San Antonio, Texas. Monster expressways slashed through the heart of the city, redirecting much of the downtown’s residential and business blood toward the booming suburbs. Hundreds of old buildings were razed to make way for the onslaught of concrete and asphalt, and just as many were abandoned, condemned to a slow death from neglect.
Vast amounts of money have gone into the resuscitation of the city’s downtown, including the restoration of many of the surviving historic buildings and neighborhoods, and the construction of a beautiful River Walk. Despite all the improvements, San Antonio’s central city has a Disneyland, tourist-oriented feel that lacks the buzz of a downtown where people live, party, shop and do business twenty-four-seven.
What seems to have survived this wave of destruction and reconstruction are hundreds of tiny pre-World-War II gas stations. A few are virtually intact, the same as they were when the owners walked away perhaps during the tough economic times of the 1930s. Fewer still have been converted to modern uses that respect original architectural details. Dozens have been turned into taco or ice-cream stands by Mexican owners with electric color palettes in mind. Many are empty and tottering, looking as if the next strong wind might knock them down.
Regardless of their condition or aesthetic significance, these ubiquitous relics appear to survive under an impregnable bubble. I asked some locals and no one knew exactly what kept the stations from being demolished. One mentioned the work of a “a bunch of gray-hair preservationist ladies in tennis shoes.” But there also seems to be an unwritten commandment against messing with these small, vulnerable structures.
You quickly learn to pick them out by their basic bone structure hidden under a myriad architectural disguises—Art Deco, Mediterranean, Tudor or utilitarian 1950s modern. Spotting them along some of the main thoroughfares—Fredericksburg Road, San Pedro, Broadway, St. Mary’s Road—became a game for Stew and me. Stew had the far better eye.
Below are some samples from our gas station tour of San Antonio.
|(1) 1021 Laredo Street. This station, built around 1938, has a
ghostly aura. Except for the missing gas pumps and the boarded-up
windows and doors, it looks pretty much as it did when the owner
shut it down. Nowadays it sits, looking rather helpless but
untouched, tucked between an arterial expressway, a huge
billboard above and a noisy dog kennel behind. Across the street
is a modern Candlewood Suites hotel. If that billboard ever
blows down, it’s all over for this tiny gem.
|(2) 1021 Laredo St. This was the main door.
The blue tiles at the foot of the walls are typical
of this style of gas station. The ceiling under the
canopy, maybe pressed tin tiles once, is now gone.
The molding around the door looks Art Deco to me.
Humble Oils, founded in Humble, Texas in
1911 eventually became Exxon.
(3) 1021 Laredo Street. The gas pumps are long gone,
but the post for the air hoses, neatly painted red, remains.
(4) 1021 Laredo Street. The peaked tin roof and the ziggurat tile
pattern can be found in other gas stations in San Antonio.
(5) King William District. Located at one of the entrances of the
King William Historic District, this former Texaco station’s cabin
style reminded me of something one would find in the backwoods
of Wisconsin. Not much was done to it when it was converted
into a drive-through beer and snacks store with a small outdoor sitting
area. Many of the homes in the nearby King William District have been
so fastidiously and fussily restored that looking at them
for too long makes your teeth hurt.
|(6) 1502 No. McCollough Ave. This store’s basic design,
the peaked tin roof and the detail over the door, reminded us of the
Art Deco look of station (1). But the Aztec Sun Blast paint job is
definitely not Art Deco. The object under the right pillar is a badly
beat-up public telephone.
|(7) 1502 No McCollough. The posts holding up the front canopy
don’t look original, and probably there were some ceramic
tiles at the top and bottom of the exterior walls.
|(8) 3502 St. Mary’s Street. This is now Pugel’s Hot Dogs. A
thoughtful preservation. The owner kept the two entrances to the
service bays, now covered with glass doors, and otherwise
did little to change the exterior of the building.
|(9) 3502 St. Mary’s. Other than installing a new window between
the two front doors, the owners left everything intact, including
the ribbon of ceramic tiles.
|(10) 2324 No. St. Mary’s Street. The signage on this restaurant
must have been done by a tattoo artist on drugs. The front posts
don’t look original, but the rest of the Mediterranean flair is all there.
|(11) 1726 St. Mary’s Street. Crouching timidly between an
expressway on one side, a monster-size billboard above and
a construction site on the left side, this specimen has the look of
an endangered species. But its trim above survives as do the two service
entrance doors. And judging by the hundreds of other old gas stations
still standing in San Antonio, I bet no one is going to bring any harm
this one, no matter how battered it may look.
|(12) 2222 N. San Pedro Ave. This is a curvaceous beauty,
all its corners seductively rounded, along with the full-length bay
windows, and the round porthole windows. There’s a service
bay on one side and a second one on the other side. A
sign suggested someone had bought the property and might be
readying to bring it back to life.
|(13) Bliss Restaurant, 926 S. Presa St. A no-expense-spared
conversion of an old Humble station into a $$$$ restaurant. The
original station had the same lines, tin roof and tilework as
the one on Laredo St. (pictures 1-4). The original building was
expanded to such an extent that the finished building
almost eclipses the original structure.
(23) Night vision. The rotating neon Pegasus on the cupola of
the building was restored to full working condition. In Greek
mythology, Pegasus was a winged horse that carried
thunderbolts for Zeus. Pegasus was first trademarked by the
Vacuum Oil Company, and through later iterations became
Mobil Oil, which ultimately merged with Exxon.
Comments? Stew and I admittedly didn’t do much original research, other than asking friends and then driving all over San Antonio looking for gas stations. So, if anyone has additions, corrections or amplifications please feel free to leave them in the “Comments” section below this post, and I will publish them.
7 thoughts on “Filling up at San Antonio's collection of historic gas stations”
SO cool, love this article!Joan
SO cool, love this article! I hope they all will be preserved.
Great post Alfredo. Actually when I grew up in Texas the “Flying Red Horse” was the symbol of the MAGNOLIA OIL CO., later HUMBLE OIL, and later still EXXON. The station you photographed was a Magnolia station when it closed many years ago.
I have to wonder about those gas tanks buried so many years ago. What is their condition now days?Robert GillPhoenix, AZ
The condition of the tanks, and all the leakage around them, is likely the reason they remain. The repurposing of those that are in use today was probably accomplished without disturbing the tanks or digging up earth. No one wants to take on the expense of environmental remediation. (Spoken like a former attorney!)
Ron: You have a great memory. Remember that.
Hadn't thought of that. If they were emptied when the stations closed, wouldn't that have prevented much leakage? Or did they leak while still in use? I share Deborah's suspicions about possible lawsuits flying back and forth, particularly in San Antonio, where dozens and dozens of billboards and signs on the side of buses encourage people to get lawyered up and sue someone for car accidents, job injuries and anything else they can think of.