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Building gas stations with flair

Carson-based gas station operator United Oil Co. is aiming to stand out from the pack with its eye-catching architecture.

October 21, 2012|By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times
  • Designed by late L.A. architect Stephen Kanner, United Oil’s gas station on the corner of Slauson and La Brea avenues near Ladera Heights mixes elements of modernism and Googie, the playful futuristic style popular in Southern California in the 1950s and ’60s.
Designed by late L.A. architect Stephen Kanner, United Oil’s gas… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Remember when gas stations were cool?

In the decades after World War II, gas was cheap and operators competed on service. Every time a car rolled in, a bell would ring and uniformed pump jockeys dashed out to fill the tank, wash the windshield and check the oil level. Sagging tires got a whoosh of air.

Station owners made profits from car repairs performed in their garages and especially from selling oil, which vehicles burned quickly by today's standards.

Some owners tried to catch customers' eyes with futuristic-looking designs for their buildings like the Googie-style Unocal station in Beverly Hills from 1965 with a swooping white roof. Now United Oil Co., a family-run oil company in Carson, is trying again to build business with arresting looks.

On a recent overcast afternoon at a busy intersection near Ladera Heights, United Oil executive Jeff Appel watched cars stream into one of the most provocative-looking gas stations in the region. First conceived by a prominent architect drawing on a napkin, the station design is a combination of modernism and Googie, the playful futuristic style popular in Southern California in the 1950s and '60s.

"The typical gas station is struggling right now," Appel said, with sales of gasoline down as much as 25% from pre-recession 2007, according to industry statistics. "It's been a very tough business for the past few years."

His United Oil station at Slauson and La Brea avenues, though, sells about 15,000 gallons of gas a day, he said, well above the average of less than 4,000 gallons. The station is one of four at the intersection, but some customers such as Alexis Jade Hunter make a point of stopping in.

"I prefer this one," said Hunter as she filled her mature Mercedes-Benz. "I like the ambience. If I have to twist a U-turn, I'll do that. I just enjoy it."

Like other customers, she also pays close attention to prices.

Appel acknowledges United Oil competes on costs, but he believes his Slauson station and others that stand out visually have an edge with customers. They may not notice, for instance, expensive concrete made black with iron particles, but Appel thinks such details create a mood.

"People enjoy the Grove," he said, referring to the upscale Los Angeles mall that cost more than most other shopping centers to build. "They want to be in a place they feel special. It's all about the feel."

Gas stations owned by United Oil — many of them operated under other brand names, such as Shell and 76 — frequently have features that set them apart from typical petrol purveyors: tile roofs, topiary, fountains and drought-resistant gardens.

The canopy over a Chevron station in Cerritos is lighted with custom see-through solar panels. Two 25-foot walls of flowing water cool a United Oil brand station in Carson.

But most of all, there are the unapologetically fanciful murals. Leaping dolphins, flying horses, soaring eagles beneath majestic clouds, hot-air balloons and giant-size candy can be found hand-painted on the ceilings and walls of United Oil stations.

Inside a western-themed Exxon station in Norco is a trompe l'oeil of a mine shaft so convincing that tourists pose for pictures in front of it, said Jon Enache, head of gas station design and construction for United Oil.

Enache, 72, designs by hand instead of computer and makes a point of mixing up his themes.

"I never repeat," he said. "Everything I do, I do different."

He draws inspiration from his favorite architect, Antoni Gaudi, whose voluptuous designs are a source of pride in Gaudi's native Spain. "I take some ideas from Gaudi, putting together the spiritual and the natural."

The design for the futuristic Slauson Avenue station, in contrast, was first sketched on a paper napkin for United Oil by the late Los Angeles architect Stephen Kanner, who was known for his playful yet functional modern designs. Kanner turned to Googie because an adjacent hotel is in that style, as was the nearby Wich Stand, a 1950s coffee shop turned health food eatery, said architect Damian LeMons of Kanner Architects.

LeMons oversaw the gas station project and liked working with United Oil in part because Secretary-Treasurer Appel was willing to keep writing checks to achieve their mutual vision — the lighting on the circular canopy alone cost half a million dollars.

"Sometimes we spend so much money that I am embarrassed," Appel said.

The Slauson station cost about $8 million. That's far above the industry norm of about $2.2 million, not including the cost of land.

But, Appel said, "I have no regrets. I couldn't show you on a graph where it makes sense, but it works for us."

Investing in one-of-a-kind gas stations pays off on multiple levels, by Appel's reckoning. They set themselves apart from the competition, enticing customers and instilling pride in the staff, he said.

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