A throwback to the high-octane days of modernist gas station design

January 5, 2012

The mostly scrubbed-off window signage revealed the vacant west suburban building was a small florist's shop in a recent life.

But for anyone old enough to drive in the 1960s and 1970s--or able to peek out the back window of his father's 1970 Buick Electra 225 ragtop--the rakish inward tilt of the building's glass front wall and the angle of its roof could only mean one thing: Before it was a little shop of flowers it was a Clark Super 100 gas station.

Looking back at the old Clark stations now--and they do turn up here and there--they were clever, efficient little buildings. The tilted glass and angular roof suggested modernity, just as the tailfins and billet-like window schemes of many of the cars of the day. The design was also a perfect way to reinforce the element of speed, given Clark's product was 100 octane premium gasoline--the only kind of gas the stations sold until the 1970s.

Here's what a station looked like in operation. You can almost hear the ding-ding of the gas station bell announcing a customer's arrival.

Now, we're back in Hillside to take another look at the former station on Roosevelt Road. I stumbled across the building a few days ago while driving through the area.

There were likely as many as 600 of these stations built back then. And Clark wasn't the only petrolium company to bring modernism to the pumps. There are still plenty of Mobil stations around designed in the 1960s by Eliot Noyes. Standard Oil/Amoco also got in the game, most notably with the now-BP station built in 1971 where Clark and LaSalle streets converge in Lincoln Park. (Designed by Chicago architect George W. Terp, I think the station was much better-looking in the original red, white and blue colors of Standard Oil/Amoco.)

Clark Oil hit rock bottom in the 1980s and 1990s and was bought by an investor group in 2003. The new Clark stations--like most gas stations these days---are like mini-marts. Of the old school stations that escaped demolition here and across Clark's then-base in the Midwest and Great Lakes area, a few are still operated as non-Clark stations, and others more have been converted to everything from convenience stores to sandwich places. And even the occasional flower shop.