Frank Lloyd Wright’s artfully rendered, two-story filling station, once designed for Buffalo, has been brought to life as an exhibit inside the downtown Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum’s new atrium.
The gas station Wright dreamed up in 1928 looks like no other – and now it’s ready for public view.
The base is a salmon-colored poured concrete building and includes restrooms with a long, narrow window; a basement where the attendant could sleep on a cot, warmed by a fireplace; and a waiting room Wright designed with women – who were beginning to drive cars in greater numbers – in mind.
There’s a large copper roof with twin copper totems – a nod to Native American design – rising 50 feet high. On either side of the station are three red, white and blue hoses connected to glass enclosures, hanging suspended from the canopy, poised to dispense gravity-fed gasoline.
Announcing the station is a red neon-like LED sign, “TYDOL,” an old, popular gasoline brand.
“I’m still speechless about it. Imagine the plans sitting in a drawer somewhere and never coming to fruition. This will be the most famous gas station in the world,” said James T. Sandoro, the museum’s founder and executive director.
He hopes the new exhibit and the emerging waterfront nearby will help boost annual attendance from its current 10,000 to 50,000 after the museum is completed and properly marketed. There are also plans to build a lube station that Wright designed.
The filling station – housed inside the museum’s 60-foot-high glass-and-steel atrium, which includes a mezzanine level, and a giant wheel over the entryway – is expected to be a cultural-tourism attraction for fans of transportation, local history and America’s greatest architect.
At the same time, construction of unrealized Wright projects have caused significant controversy within architectural circles over questions of authenticity.
The gas station is now the third local re-creation of Wright’s work from blueprints left behind after his death in 1959. The two others are the Blue Sky Mausoleum in Forest Lawn, which opened in 2004, and the Fontana Boathouse on the Black Rock Channel, which opened in 2007.
Patrick Mahoney of Lauer-Manguso & Associates Architects, the project’s architect, said the exhibit reflects what Wright was thinking for a specific location at a particular time, rather than what the mercurial architect – who was known for changing plans up to the last minute – would have ultimately done.
“To me, it’s an exhibit. It represents Wright’s ideas, but it definitely can’t represent the building that would have happened. It can only be the building that was a snapshot in his mind at that time,” Mahoney said.
“If you go there and all you see is a building with a copper roof, and you don’t engage in the discussion going on in the 1920s about how the automobile would become part of American culture, then I think we missed our mark. The interpretation of the exhibit is just as important as the exhibit itself.”
Sandoro said he welcomed the debate. “I love the controversy,” he said, “because people will talk about it.”
Sandoro bought the plans and the rights to the name “Buffalo Filling Station by Frank Lloyd Wright” from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, in Scottsdale, Ariz., for $125,000 in 2002, one year after the museum opened at the corner of Seneca Street and Michigan Avenue. The Foundation’s Anthony Puttnam, an architect who once worked with Wright, served as a consultant to Mahoney.
The filling station was originally planned to be built outdoors, but the occasional strong winds that blow off Lake Erie, the sheer cold and fears of copper thievery led to the choice of a climate-controlled, indoor environment.
The atrium that houses it was built with a $6.3 million state grant, which expanded the footprint of the museum to 35,000 square feet and has allowed for banquets, parties and other large functions.
The museum’s board of directors approved plans to double the space – the east wall is temporary, the museum is meant to rise four stories, and the poured concrete roof can go further out – once $3 million is raised. That will allow more of the quarter-million artifacts Sandoro has obtained over a lifetime of collecting, including vintage Pierce-Arrow automobiles, carriages and bicycles, to be displayed.
Construction of the filling station began in November 2012. The addition of windows, doors, bathroom fixtures and Wright-designed furniture, as well as some finishing work, has yet to be completed, and the official opening isn’t expected until around June 2014.
But Sandoro has decided to let the public get a “sneak preview” with the purchase of a general admission ticket during museum hours, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursdays to Sundays. Group tours and special events are available daily. Cost is $10, $20 for groups.
Significant donations of labor and materials considerably lowered the projected nearly $1 million cost. Alp Steel, a local company, saved the project $350,000 by providing hundreds of pieces of bolted steel. Revere Copper of Rome donated much of the copper. Flexlume Sign made the sign at no cost, Mahoney and Lauer-Manguso donated architectural work, and R & P Oak Hill Development provided construction services free of charge.
“There have just been numerous people and company after company that helped us,” Sandoro said.
Rich Foley, a coppersmith who works for Grove Roofing Services, also did volunteer work as well as being paid on the project.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to do a job like this. It’s been an honor to work on a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit,” Foley said.
The copper-clad totems, he said, were particularly challenging.
“They taper from the bottom like an obelisk to the top, diminishing 1/32 of an inch in every segment, so it was very challenging to make all these angles come together. Every piece is handmade, hand fitted and hand soldered, and stacked individually. It was the most intricate, challenging and rewarding copper job I’ve ever done, and I’ve been doing sheet-metal work since 1970.”
Heath and Martin
The filling station was originally planned for Michigan Avenue and Cherry Street, about a mile north of the Pierce-Arrow Museum.
William Heath, whose house on Soldier’s Place was the first Wright-designed building in Buffalo, and Darwin Martin, Wright’s most important local client, took ownership of the Elmer E. Harris Company, which operated gas stations. Martin suggested that Wright design the station – in those days, they were typically a single pump and an outhouse – but the project never got off the ground.
The architect, who struggled during that period, eventually peddled his idea to other companies, conceiving of a network of stations throughout the country. He even brought a model of his design to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Eventually, when he was 91, a pared-down station by Wright was erected in Cloquet, Minn.
Mahoney said he thinks seeing what Wright once had in mind for Buffalo opens a fascinating window into the past.
“I think it’s an engaging building, the way the design incorporates American history, particularly Native American history, in a building that is really foreshadowing America’s future by someone who is searching for a new architecture,” Mahoney said.