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Saving a Piece of the Past : Landmark: The Hollywood gas station in Art Deco style will reopen this week as a snack shop.

November 04, 1990|JOHN RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ironists might contend that only in the capital of the car culture would historic significance be attached to a gas station.

But hold the L.A. jokes, please. This is not just any old gas station, but an elegantly simple paradigm of Art Deco, and it has some significant links to the city's history, as well. The Gilmore Gas Station at the corner of Highland and Willoughby avenues in Hollywood late last week was in the final stages of being declared a historic cultural monument by the city of Los Angeles. This week, the station is scheduled to reopen with a fresh coat of paint and a new tenant, who will run a snack shop and plans to have it operating as a gas station again by January.

The service station was built in 1935 for the Gilmore Gas Co., a company owned by the family that built the old Gilmore Stadium and still operates Farmers Market.

The landmark designation is the result of efforts of the Melrose Neighborhood Assn., whose members learned earlier this year of the possibility that the L-shaped building, with its Art Deco linear motif and curved corners, would be demolished. They filed an application with the Cultural Heritage Commission to have it declared a historic cultural monument.

Last week, they expressed satisfaction at having succeeded in protecting a piece of Hollywood's past.

"There was no atmosphere left of the old Hollywood," said Hilda Goldsmith, a longtime area resident and a member of the Melrose Neighborhood Assn. "In the '30s, there were a lot of these Art Deco things."

Goldsmith noted that the station is one of several buildings in the neighborhood from the same era that are being preserved.

"The buildings have a certain congeniality," she said. "They have a feeling for the time, the era of the 1930s, the great motion picture era."

Arturo Martinez, president of the neighborhood association, said the organization mounted the campaign to have the gas station declared a monument when the residents learned that its previous tenant did not have his lease renewed.

"Most of the residents of the area are old-timers who have known that station for years," he said. "We are losing a lot of the Hollywood history at a tremendous rate."

The station has also been a location site for numerous movies, most recently "L.A. Story," with Steve Martin, as well as several rock videos and commercials.

"So it's of great importance to the home industry of Hollywood," Martinez said.

When a structure is designated a historic cultural monument, it means that any major exterior change has to be approved by the Cultural Heritage Commission. Some property owners resist the designation--even though it sometimes adds to the value of a property--because it also limits what the owner can do with the building.

In the case of the Gilmore station, an attorney for owner Beatrice Kirschner initially objected to the monument designation, but acquiesced after receiving assurances from commission officials that renovation plans for the property would be allowed to proceed.

The gas station's connection with the Gilmore Oil Co. links it to one of the most important and colorful families in Los Angeles history. A.F. Gilmore brought his family from Illinois to Los Angeles in the 1880s and started a dairy business, eventually making enough money to buy a tract in the Rancho La Brea area bounded roughly by La Brea Avenue, Fairfax Avenue, Beverly Boulevard and 3rd Street.

While drilling a water well in 1903, Gilmore struck oil, and the Gilmore oil empire began. His son, Earl B. Gilmore, founded the Gilmore Petroleum Co., later known as the Gilmore Oil Co., in 1919, after his father's death.

The company established Gilmore "Red Lion" gasoline stations up and down the West Coast. The Gilmore pumps and signs with the lion logo became a familiar part of the Los Angeles landscape in the '30s and '40s, and are today in great demand among memorabilia collectors.

According to Charles Fisher of Highland Park Heritage, who researched some of the history of the gas station for the Melrose neighborhood group, the Gilmore Gas Co. built the station on a parcel owned by movie actor Wallace Beery. The father of the current owner, Beatrice Kirschner, bought it from the Beery estate.

It operated as a Gilmore station until the company was sold to Socony-Vacuum in 1945. In subsequent incarnations, it has been a Mobil station and a Texaco station.

Along with its new status as a city monument, the station is getting a much-needed face-lift. The building is being leased by Pamela A. Jaye, who plans to renovate it to its original condition and open a snack shop, classic car rental service and working gas station.

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