Back in 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a national contest called “This Place Matters” where people voted on sites that mattered to them – to their history, their identity and their community. As I noted in my blog at the time, the winner was not a grand mansion or a pathbreaking design by a famous architect.
It was a Humble Oil gas station in San Antonio. The San Antonio Conservation Society started surveying the city’s historic gas stations back in 1983. We built up a database, which has led to the City proposing the designation of some 30 of these significant community landmarks.
Slimp Oil, 604 Carolina
Happily, there has been a trend for years of converting the stations into restaurants. The typical design with a large canopy creates a welcoming feel (and an outdoor dining spot!)
North St. Mary’s
Some have been converted into ice houses (that is a kind of outdoor bar/restaurant for you Northerners) and auto shops and even churches and residences.
3124 S Flores
Many of those proposed for designation are in need of rehabilitation and have lost some bits of detail here and there, but all are certainly capable of being restored.
I have long been interested in historic gas stations, but they are especially relevant in South Texas where the industry really took off following Spindletop and the Model T. These are a central part of our regional heritage.
716 S Alamo
Our initial 1983 survey was updated and expanded in 2012 through a web portal that allowed for public access. The Society and the City hosted an event in May celebrating gas station architecture.
Which is why it is curious that one of the largest and best of the list was ignored in a Business Journal article today touting the new development on the East Side by Varga Endeavors and Harris Bay. They have a large site planned as a ring of 5-story buildings with a courtyard retail terrace centered on a vertical urban farm. It has a kinda Silicon Valley “wow” factor for San Antonio.
The article lauds the fact that there were no historic buildings on site, as if such would somehow detract from the development concept. Not true. They would enhance it. As I explained in my recent blog “The Vacant Stare”, vacant sites do not inspire more creative solutions.
Also curious is who told the developers that there were no historic buildings on the site. We’ve been aware of these treasures for decades. They have been on a publically accessible website for four years. And compared to many of the others on the list, this station is in excellent shape.
We explained the significance of the site to Mr. Varga last week and encouraged him to work it into his new development. It could be a drive-in entry to the project, or even part of the retail marketplace. Its “Alamo” roofline creates a great branding opportunity for the project just south of the Alamodome. Here’s hoping that his architects see this superior example as an opportunity to enhance their project.
DECEMBER 2016 UPDATE – AND THEY DID!
Kudos to developer Efraim Varga, who has now announced that the Slimp Oil building will indeed be the entrance to his project – an excellent decision that preserves the best of the past while ushering in an exciting new development!