Gas Stations by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe Get New Leases on Life

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lindholm Gas Station, a remnant of his Broadacre City dream, is getting a rehab. As is a Montreal gas station designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which has been boarded up for the past three years.

Lindolm Gas Station Frank Lloyd Wright

One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most ambitious plans, proportional to if exactly the conceptual opposite of his mile-high skyscraper, was Broadacre City, the suburban ideal of his Usonian vision: an automobile suburb combined with the Homestead Act. As James Krohe Jr. describes it in relationship to Chicago:

Broadacre City today is usually dismissed as a rationale for sprawl. In Broadacre City, writes historian Peter Hall, Wright wove together virtually every strand in American antiurbanist thinking. In fact, Wright had proposed not a new kind of suburb but a new kind of city. Wright deplored the suburban expansion already underway, by which the 19th century industrial city he hated—of which Chicago was the American archetype—appropriated the countryside. Wright was inspired to invective by Chicago the way Vachel Lindsay was inspired to verse by the flowerfed buffalo. His Broadacre City was not a city set in the countryside, a la Ebenezer Howard’s turn-of-the-century Garden City concept. Rather, it was the countryside converted into a city that would be an improvement on both. No mere dormitory, its spreadout parts would compose an urban whole, with each family enjoying access to small farms, orchards and recreation areas, but with light industry and other urban facilities all within 10 to 20 miles of their house.


Usonia was based not on cooperation but fierce individualism. Here he was more in touch with the average American than was the patrician Daniel Burnham or the communalist Jens Jensen. Broadacre City offered a means by which ordinary Americans might live in what the great urbanist Lewis Mumford called “romantic isolation and reunion with the soil” while enjoying urban economic opportunities and recreations. Broadacre City was Wright’s White City, certainly, but one that owed as much to Dan’l Boone as to Dan’l Burnham.

It was an odd concept—central planning plus reactionary suburbanization—and, obviously, never happened, even if it did physically anticipate mid-century urban development. Nonetheless, it’s poetic that one of the few aspects of Broadacre that ever actually got built was a gas station: the Lindholm Gas Station (now Terry’s Best Service) in Cloquet, Minnesota. And it’s getting a renovation.

Mies van der Rohe gas station

In related news—like, literally, news about gas stations designed by legends of Chicago architecture getting renovated—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Esso station in Montreal is also getting a renovation; it’s been boarded up since 2008. Those of you who are familiar with his work will no doubt be surprised that his style translates seamlessly to a gas station. Here’s what it looked like shortly before it was shut down.

Less ambitious, but closer to home: Wadham’s Gas Station in West Allis, Wisconsin:

Wadham's Gas Station Wisconsin

One of a hundred-some “teahouse” stations built by Wadham’s Oil and Grease Company beginning in 1917—this one’s from 1927, and unfortunately not as spectacular as the Wadham’s in Milwaukee–and pretty much the opposite of the Wright ideal.


Photographs: Library of Congress; Montrealis; ChicagoGeek



3 years ago
Posted by MIchaelJSebastian

Thanks for writing about this. My in-laws live in Cloquet, so I get up there a handful of times a year. I'm fascinated with this gas station, and go out of my way--although given the size of Cloquet, nothing is really out of the way--to fill up at this spot. Many of the residents of the town find it amusing (perhaps odd) that I'm so interested in a gas station, because to them it's just that--a gas station.

During my most recent visit, last month, the attendant let me walk through the station--which afforded my in-laws even more amusement--and I was struck by the built-ins: the shelves, cabinets, and lighted signs indicating where various tools are meant to be stored. The employees of the gas stations still use these built-ins and store their tools where, presumably, Wright had intended them to be stored. There's also a small staircase that leads to the bathrooms, and it features a lady's lounge. The lounge, which anyone can tour, looks out over a bridge spanning the Cloquet River.

This gas station is a real treat for fans of Wright or early- to mid-20th century architecture in general, because it hasn't seen the high-priced renovations that so many of Wright's homes and offices have undergone. (Although they have made some improvements to the gas station from when I first started visiting the town six years ago.) Similar to the S.C. Johnson offices in Racine, Wisc., which Wright designed, this gas station is interesting to visit to see people using the gas station as Wright had intended. I imagine an architect would be more pleased that people are still using his building as it was designed, as opposed to it becoming a museum that people merely tour.

Some advice in case you do decide to visit the gas station: The employees are friendly and serve as pseudo guides; they'll let you tour the place, and they possess a decent range of knowledge about the gas station. Also, if you fill up your car's gas tank, know that there are self-serve and full-service pumps. If you pull your car up to the latter pump, an attendant will run out to greet you, so make sure you have some singles on hand for a tip.

Michael Sebastian

P.S. I'm told there's also a Wright designed home in Cloquet, although I have yet to see or even confirm that.

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