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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, July 25, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

The Sherman Perk coffee shop is housed in a former gas station. (PHOTO: Mark Fay)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

This pagoda-style filling station survives in Cedarburg. (PHOTO: Mark Fay)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

This photo of a station in Independence, Wis., graces the jacket of "Fill'er Up." (PHOTO: Mark Fay)

"Fill'er Up" trails state's gas station history


When's the last time you looked at the place you gassed up? Sure, you spat out bile at the prices posted and you looked at the numbers spinning furiously upward on the pump, but what color was the building? What did it look like?

It seems like we pay less and less attention to the everyday in our lives. We're in such a hurry, we don't stop to look around. And that may be part of the reason why so many quotidian treasures are disappearing.

Like the ones in "Fill'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations," a new book by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz that traces the history of gas station architecture in the state.

Draeger, an architectural historian with the Wisconsin Historical Society, and Speltz, an historian at American Girl, drive us around Wisconsin to see the places we've filled up over the years. The show us the great art deco places, the whimsical gas-dispensing pagodas and the sprawling, modern gas megamarts of today.

The heavily illustrated and extremely readable book -- published in hardcover by Wisconsin Historical Society Press in Madison -- reminds us to open our eyes and look around us. It also helps us understand why it's important to preserve examples of these places that are so ingrained in our lives.

We asked Draeger and Speltz about their book, about Wisconsin gas stations and the future of the most important examples.

OMC: What was the inspiration for the book?

JD: The ordinary buildings that form the background for our daily lives fascinate me. I believe these buildings have meaning and help to ground us in a changing world by allowing us to feel connected to those who come before us. I first became interested in gas stations nearly 25 years ago, when I saw the changes brought on by the OPEC oil crisis accelerating the destruction of old stations. I wanted to write a book to celebrate the distinctive architecture of gas stations and show that these buildings can be preserved and adapted to new uses.

OMC: Did it involve countless miles driving around the state to check out places you'd heard about or gotten tips on?

JD: My job at the Wisconsin Historical Society has brought me to every corner of the state over the past 20 years. I have slowly compiled information on stations, so our actual travel for the creation of the book was limited. Our photographer Mark Fay visited every station last year and shot the beautiful color images that you see in the book.

OMC: Does Milwaukee still have any great examples or have they all been bulldozed over the years?

JD: Milwaukee still retains quite a few historic gas stations. Because of the scope of the book, we could only include a few favorites. We believe the book will allow people to appreciate other stations that we could not include by understanding their place in history. Most of these stations are in a precarious state right now and without dedicated owners, their future prospects are bleak. We intend book to make a case for their importance and reuse.

OMC: Are the glory days over? Do we pretty much gas up and get out now without paying any attention to the place itself?

JD: The nature of our interaction with the station and its operators has changed dramatically. What was once a rich personal relationship, is now impersonal and anonymous. When you can pay at the pump, without human contact, you have lost a social relationship. That phenomenon is not unique to gas stations, it is really a consequence of our self-service retailing. Our book helps to explain why so much nostalgia exists for old gas stations.

MS: A station in nearby West Allis illustrates just how much is lost as the relationships with the station owners and operators disappear. The former owner of a Wadham's pagoda station, Frank Seneca, was a huge Brewers fan. Neighbors and customers would reminisce with Frank about his minor league baseball days and listen to Brewers games at the station. Short newscasts and weather reports on video screens at pumps today could never replace the personal relationships that were common at neighborhood stations.

OMC: Did we pay attention in the past or was this often playful, often sleek architecture overlooked at the time?

JD: Gas stations have always been on people's minds and over time have been a constant point of discussion. Many of the issues that people think are new today about how gas stations look, or their proper place in our communities have deep roots in the past. Our book traces the interplay between what people value at any give time and the gas stations they build and use.

MS: The Milwaukee-based Wadham's Oil Company continually attracted attention with their Japanese-inspired pagoda stations. One person we spoke with recalled the delight of piling into the car with her father to go fill-up at the pagoda station. The only people today jumping at the chance to go to a gas station are new drivers looking for a reason to run errands!

OMC: Is there any movement to preserve this part of American history?

JD: Individuals preserve gas stations. We highlight some of these people in our book and explain their motivations. There are organized groups of gas station fans across the country such as the Society for Commercial Archeology, but I would not say there is an organized preservation movement at this time. Interest in historic gas stations is increasing, it is our hope that it comes soon enough to save the few surviving historic stations.

MS: The preservation cannot come too soon as some historic stations were demolished as we put the book together during the past few years.


Talkbacks

sbukosky | Sept. 10, 2008 at 2:42 p.m. (report)

Forget the building. I miss 21 cents per gallon, getting your windows cleaned, tires, battery, radiator checked AND a free Packer glass for a minimum 8 gallon fill-up. Might even have got some S&H green stamps to boot.

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