Author: Grace Shackman
Before Ann Arbor was a city of restaurants, it was a city of gas stations. “If there was a corner, you had to have a gas station on it,” recalls Jake Kooperman, who with his brother Joe ran several local stations from the 1940s to the 1960s. The first gas station appeared in Ann Arbor in 1918. By 1938 the town supported sixty-six of them.
Most stations were owned by big gas companies, which rented the buildings and equipment to local operators. Rent was either a flat rate or a few cents per gallon sold. “It was an inexpensive way to go into business and make a few bucks,” explains Kooperman. With “a couple hundred in your pocket [and] a little mechanical ability, you could succeed.” That was an attractive proposition during the Depression, when business opportunities were scarce.
“Most neighborhoods had a gas station with their own clientele,” recalls Ted Palmer, who grew up in Ann Arbor. “I knew just about everyone [who came in],” says Warren Staebler, who for many years ran a station at Packard and Arch and also worked at several others.
Though cars eventually transformed Ann Arbor, they were slow to catch on at first. “This is a peculiar town,” complained the city’s first car dealer, Edward Staebler, in 1906. “Our population is 18,000 and we have not over a dozen machines here. Half of those are used but very little.”
The first local drivers bought their gas in small quantities from local grocers--either from Staebler’s brother, Fred, at 120 West Washington, or from Dean and Company at 214 South Main. In 1904 both Staebler and Dean installed curbside pumps, but rising demand soon overwhelmed their capacity. On weekends, when drivers tended to go on excursions, the line of motorists waiting to get gas would often stretch several blocks, and a policeman was needed to keep order.
In 1918 Standard Oil opened the first drive-in station in town, on the northeast corner of Huron and Fifth Avenue (now part of the City Hall parking lot). The same year, the Staebler brothers organized the county’s first wholesale gas and oil company after a supplier threatened to cut them off. At first they operated out of Edward’s store, but in 1921 they moved into more spacious quarters in the old Philip Bach mansion at 424 South Main. The following year, the Staeblers turned their wholesale office into a retail operation by installing gas pumps on the mansion’s former front lawn.
The next year, 1923, Hortaio Abbott, a local real estate agent and postmaster (also, coincidentally, a Democratic activist, as was Edward Staebler), opened a rival gasoline wholesale company; Abbott would eventually supply ten Ann Arbor gas stations as well as others in the county. A third early local chain was the Michigamme Oil Company, with headquarters in its station on the corner of Huron and Division. Staebler grew the fastest, eventually owning eighty-three stations in southeast Michigan.
By 1928 Ann Arbor had thirty-five gas stations, most of them in or near downtown. (The exceptions were three stations north of the Huron in Lower Town, two west of town on Jackson Road, and Titus Schneider’s station on South Main, across from what is now Pioneer High.) It was not unusual for a busy intersection, such as Division and Huron or Packard and Hill, to have three competing stations.
Then as now, gas stations and car dealerships clustered near highways. But at that time, the highways passed right through the heart of town. East-west traffic entered Ann Arbor on Washtenaw and exited on Huron (the route still followed by today’s Business I-94). East-west traffic was not terribly heavy, however, because Michigan Avenue, the main road between Detroit and Chicago at the time, took a more southerly route through Ypsilanti and Saline. East-west traffic was further eased after Stadium, then called the “bypass” or the “cutoff,” was built in the mid-1920s, allowing drivers to pass south of downtown and connect with Jackson Road at Maple.
North-south traffic was a bigger problem, because anyone heading north to Flint or south to Toledo had to pass through downtown Ann Arbor. Traffic followed the route that is today Business US-23: cars coming from the south on what is now Carpenter Road would turn west onto Washtenaw, follow Washtenaw and Huron downtown to the county courthouse, and turn north again on Main Street.
Cars were often held up at the north end of town, where the narrow Whitmore Lake Road bridge crossed the Huron River. “If a truck and car were crossing at the same time, somebody had to put their wheels on the sidewalk,” recalls Maynard Newton. And even after they crossed the river, travelers were still not in the clear. “It was gravel up to Brighton and not in a straight line like [modern] US-23,” says Bill Lewis.
Washtenaw County’s first pavement was laid in 1918 on Jackson Road west of Ann Arbor and on Michigan Avenue east of Ypsilanti. In the 1920s, flush with cash from the booming auto industry, the state launched a huge road-building effort. Using convict labor, the highway department paved most of the principal roads leading out of town, including Whitmore Lake Road, Plymouth, and Washtenaw. Á
The changes required to accommodate the automobile ripped huge holes in Ann Arbor’s nineteenth-century streetscapes. Along main traffic routes, homes and business blocks alike were demolished and replaced by gas stations, car dealerships, and parking lots.
Cheap and easy to put up, gas stations became the signature buildings of the automotive age. The first ones were often primitive. Hoists weren’t invented until 1925, and not all stations could immediately afford them. Instead, mechanics climbed into pits in the floor to work under cars. Illi’s Auto Service, at 401 West Huron, still has three of the five pits used when the building was the Atwell and Son gas station in the 1930s. The pits are now covered with boards. “We had a robbery here once, and they pried the boards off. They must have thought we hid the safe under there. They must have been surprised when all they saw was the basement,” laughs owner Ray Roberts.
Some followed Staebler’s example of locating in old houses. Michigamme Oil Company had its main gas station in front of an old house at Huron and Division; Mallek and Hoppe’s first station was a little house where Jackson and Dexter merge with Huron. Others built small wooden or metal buildings alongside the pumps.
Concerned citizens, not just in Ann Arbor but around the country, began complaining that these hastily constructed buildings were a blight on the landscape. Gas companies reacted by commissioning more elegant designs. In 1925 Waldo Abbott built a gas station at William and Maynard designed to look like a Greek temple. A few years later, the Atwell station (now Illi’s) was designed to resemble a castle, complete with parapets and turrets.
Houselike stations were especially popular, on the theory that they could blend with residential neighborhoods. Paul’s Service Station, built in 1930 at the northwest corner of Ann and Fourth, was done in Tudor style, complete with a brick facade and slate roof (partially obscured by a later cinder-block addition, the building is now Adam’s Garden of Eden). The prettiest local example has to be the 1927 Tuomy Hills station at Washtenaw and Stadium, which local architects Lynn Fry and Paul Kasurin designed for Bill and Kathryn Tuomy. Built of stone in a style reminiscent of an Irish gatehouse, it was so distinctive that a copy of it was displayed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Today, owned by University Bank, it’s the city’s most elegant ATM.
Early Staebler gas stations were built in a Spanish style, complete with red tile roofs. Although obscured by later additions, the stations at the corner of Liberty and Ashley (now Dream On Futons) and Fourth and Detroit (now Argiero’s) still reveal traces of their original style. Other Mediterranean-style buildings included Erle Koons’s station on the southeast corner of Liberty and First (now Painters Supply & Equipment) and the stucco-and-tile Hunter station at Huron and First (now Fine Flowers).
Eventually, such elaborate attempts at disguise became a public joke. In the 1937 movie A Damsel in Distress, Gracie Allen visits an English estate and remarks, “It’s pretty enough to be a gas station.”
Changing fashions combined with economic pressures to radically alter gas station architecture during the Depression. With a growing number of stations forced to share a shrinking market, stations put more emphasis on repair services. Typically a station added a pair of service bays, one with a hoist and another for tire repairs and other light mechanical work. Space was also needed to sell auxiliary products, called by the trade “TBA” (for “tires, batteries, and accessories”).
Some stations added service bays to existing houselike buildings, while others tried to apply homely details to the new, boxier structures. The Sinclair station at State and Packard (now Bell’s Pizza) is a rectangular box decorated with turrets and a tile roof. But most companies opted for buildings that were easily identified as gas stations, completely reversing their initial goal of blending into the neighborhood.
In the 1930s and early 1940s enameled-steel facades became popular. Locally the Staeblers led the way in 1933, tearing down the Bach mansion and replacing it with an ultramodern enameled station designed by local architect Douglas “Pete” Loree, who also helped design the bus depot. The same year the Staeblers put up a duplicate at the corner of State Street and Jefferson (before the construction of the U-M’s LS&A Building, Jefferson went through to State).
Casey’s gas station on the corner of Huron and Fourth (now Vault of Midnight Comix and Rosey’s barbershop) was built in 1937 with glazed tile and appears to be another creation of Loree’s. Former owner Clan Crawford says that the late architect Dick Robinson told him that he designed it when he was just out of school and working for Loree. Unlike most other gas stations, it was designed to hold other businesses as well--an appliance store and a watch repair shop. “It was built to get rent until they could tear it down and get something decent there,” Crawford says, “but no one has.”
The major oil companies hired architects to design stations that could be replicated all over the country. In 1937 Walter Dorwin Teague created a rectangular green-and-white Texaco station with large glass windows that was heavily influenced by the International style. Texaco stations with Teague’s design soon became ubiquitous, and other companies followed suit with similar buildings, all with an art deco or streamline-moderne flavor.
Most of Ann Arbor’s remaining enameled stations have been covered up, but at the former Schneider’s Amoco (now Rainbow Creations) across from Michigan Stadium, the panels can still be seen beneath a coat of yellow paint. The distinctive square towers that once marked Pure Oil stations are easy to spot on Japanese Auto Professional Service at Main and Madison and Victory Lane Quick Oil Change at Packard and South Boulevard.
Station operators kept busy in their newly enlarged stations, because cars needed much more service than they do today. Not only did they break down more often, but also routine maintenance, such as oil changes and tune-ups, had to be done more frequently. Staebler’s station at Main and Packard lured customers by offering pickup service. An employee on a three-wheeled motorcycle would pick the car up at the customer’s home or business and drive it to the station, towing the motorcycle behind him. After the repairs were done, he would return the car the same way.
Stations also cultivated customer loyalty by offering premiums such as carnival dishes, glass tumblers, Pepsi, and trading stamps. Attorney John Hathaway worked at Warren Staebler’s station as a young man, and he and his wife, Mary, still have a set of Czechoslovakian Christmas ornaments from the station.
People who were around before World War II don’t remember downtown traffic then as any big problem. Ted Palmer recalls that it was even easy to find a parking place at the county courthouse at Main and Huron. “You didn’t have to drive around the block like you do today,” he recalls. “I used to drive an old Model T that I got for fifteen dollars to high school.” Although he often arrived at Ann Arbor High, then at the corner of State and Huron, at the last minute, “I could always park opposite the door.”
One big reason for the light car traffic was that trains were the preferred way of getting to
other towns, even for people with cars. Freight also was usually sent on trains, not trucks. Many
people in town still walked to stores and workplaces. And except among the very rich, multicar
families were still in the future.
Gas stations held their own during the Depression, when, if operators didn’t get rich, they could at least eke out a living. Other car-related industries did not fare as well. Road paving stopped except for a little work done by Works Progress Administration crews, and car sales dipped very low.
During World War II all available materials and labor went into building war- related products such as tanks and airplanes. Gas was strictly rationed, as were tires. Some stations kept alive by retreading tires. After the war, though, people made up for the years of abstinence, buying new cars as fast as they could be made. The surge in vehicle traffic hit Ann Arbor particularly hard, as thousands of veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to enroll at the U-M.
The resulting parking problem was temporarily solved by mayor Bill Brown, who in 1945 instituted meters on the streets to raise money for building parking lots and structures. But the problem of the increased traffic pouring through town as the economy picked up was not so easily solved. Bob Kuhn, who lived on Ann Street near the courthouse, recalls that big trucks hauling cars from Flint to Milan would “try to turn at Main and Huron and make a big clang and bang.” A woman who moved to a new house near Pauline and Stadium in 1955 recalls that she had trouble sleeping because the car haulers were so noisy. “They’d backfire as they went down the hill, day and night.”
“In the fifties the downtown was jammed. They were going through because there was no other way to go,” recalls Jack Dobson, who was a member of city council at the time. He and his colleagues were planning to solve the problem by routing traffic on a loop west of downtown, going on Beakes and Ashley to Packard. On the state level, legislators were discussing building a turnpike similar to ones being built in Pennsylvania and New York. All the discussion became moot in 1956 when Congress passed President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act.
The act created an entirely new network of limited-access highways, with the federal government covering 90 percent of the cost and the state the remaining 10 percent. According to Michigan Department of Transportation records, Washtenaw County’s portion of I-94 was built in stages from 1956 to 1960, while US-23 north of Ann Arbor was built in 1957, with the southern part finished in 1962. “With so much work in a seven- or eight-year period, it’s all due at the same time for repairs,” remarks Bob Tetens, director of the Urban Transportation Study Policy Committee.
The expressways marked the end of the golden age of downtown gas stations. “One by one, they were sold,” recalls Kooperman. Small stations were the first to go. “The bigger ones could undersell little ones. They could get gas cheaper,” recalls Warren Staebler.
Even before the expressways, gas stations and car dealers had begun moving farther out of town, especially along Stadium and Washtenaw. As styles changed again, the surviving downtown stations made another attempt to blend with neighborhoods, using residential details like the mansard roof on J.B.’s Auto Service at Liberty and Second, or the Colonial cupola on Mallek’s at the Jackson-Dexter fork.
The other big design change in recent years is the return of canopies. Early gas stations usually had canopies as an integral part of the building, but in the 1930s architects began leaving them off, disliking the way canopies interfered with the clean lines of their enameled boxes. Canopies returned to Ann Arbor when Alden Dow designed the Leonard station (now Total) on the corner of Arbordale and Stadium. “Leonard was new in town. It was a brand no one knew. They had to sell the name, so they had canopies and cheaper prices,” recalls Harlan Otto, who ran the Amoco station in Ypsilanti for forty years. Canopies became nearly universal after the switch to self-service in the 1970s.
Total is now planning to demolish Dow’s station. Plans filed with the city call for replacing it with a new building with more sales space. Coming full circle from the days of Fred Staebler and Sedgwick Dean, most stations now make more money selling groceries and snacks than they do from gasoline.
Last January an Observer survey found that the number of gas stations in Ann Arbor had fallen from eighty-seven in 1950 to fifty in 1980 and just thirty today. As stations have closed, their buildings have been either torn down or converted to other uses. Former gas station buildings still standing, in addition to those already mentioned, include Copy Quick on Packard, Old Brick Quality Refinishing on Detroit, the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau on Huron, and Econo-Car on Division. Many others have found new life as food-related businesses, including DeLong’s Pit Bar-B-Q on North Fifth Avenue, the Main Party Store, the Big Market on Huron, and Ali Baba’s, Jimmy John’s, and the Cottage Inn, all on Packard near State.
With a new awareness that pollution left by leaking underground tanks requires massive cleanup, building new structures on gas station sites has become more problematic. In 1990 the Washtenaw County Historical Society had to do a major cleanup on the former station site at 303 North Main before moving an old house from Lower Town to become its museum.
Several sites have been converted to parks. Warren Staebler’s old gas station on Packard is now Franklin C. Forsythe Park, named after the first president of the Jaycees. Liberty Plaza is a gas station site. Two other stations, the old Clark station at Division and Detroit and Ben Wilkes’s station at Summit and Main, are being considered for the same use.
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