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Frank Lloyd Wright-designed filling station opens today

The unorthodox filling station Frank Lloyd Wright drew up in 1927 for the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cherry Street never made it off the paper it was designed on.

Now, 86 years later – and 12 years after collector and museum operator James T. Sandoro acquired the rights to the project – the “Buffalo Filling Station by Frank Lloyd Wright” exhibit opens today in the downtown Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum.

The station is displayed in a 40,000-square-foot glass-and-steel atrium built with a $6.3 million state grant.

“The Frank Lloyd Wright heritage we have here, and the tie-in with the automotive industry, is a big deal for Buffalo.

“This is way beyond my dreams,” Sandoro said Thursday as he looked around his museum, where he expects 700 people to fill the atrium’s floor and mezzanine this morning for the exhibit’s official unveiling.

Among the artfully rendered, two-story filling station’s features are a salmon-colored poured concrete building that includes restrooms with a long, narrow window; a waiting room designed with women in mind, since they were just beginning to drive cars in greater numbers; and a basement where the filling station attendant slept on a cot, warmed by a fireplace.

A copper roof with twin copper poles – Wright called them “totems” – rise 45 feet high, in a nod to Native American design, while three red, white and blue hoses connected to glass enclosures hang suspended from the canopy, poised to dispense gravity-fed gasoline.

A red neon-like sign above the station advertises “Tydol,” a popular gasoline brand at the time.

Sandoro has added a 1920s-era repainted Coca-Cola cooler next to the station, although he laughed at the thought of what the mercurial Wright might have said about it being there.

Sandoro originally planned to re-create the filling station outdoors, but the occasionally strong winds that blow off Lake Erie, cold temperatures and the threat of copper thievery convinced him to put it in a climate-controlled, indoor environment.

Sandoro, who grew up in the city’s Central Park area and remembers playing in the rundown Martin House before its importance was rediscovered, acquired the licensing and building rights to the filling station in 2002 from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., for about $175,000, two-thirds coming from a county grant. It was the same year Sandoro’s museum opened at 201 Seneca St. and Michigan Avenue, where he imagined displaying Wright’s design after viewing a gas station housed in the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland.

Construction of unrealized Wright projects after his death in 1959 has drawn considerable controversy over questions of authenticity.

The gas station is the third re-creation in Buffalo in 10 years. It follows the Blue Sky Mausoleum in Forest Lawn, which opened in 2004, and the Fontana Boathouse on the Black Rock Channel, finished in 2007. Unlike the others, the filling station is considered a museum exhibit, which has lessened criticism from purists who say re-creations can’t account for changes the notoriously fickle and demanding Wright could have insisted on if he was still alive.

Sandoro, who welcomes the controversy, expects the museum to soon join the ranks of major Buffalo attractions because of its appeal to car buffs and Wright aficionados.

“Our attendance will jump tremendously and make us a real player in Buffalo tourism,” he said.

The national office of Toyota called recently about unveiling a new model at the museum, which he said was indicative of the growing interest expressed as opening day nears. A Mercedes-Benz “Dress for Success” fundraiser was held earlier this year.

With the filling station attraction, Sandoro expects to double 2013’s attendance of 8,500 this year and eventually eyes 40,000 to 60,000 visitors annually.

He has applied for a city grant to pay for staffing to extend operation potentially one or two more days a week. Currently it is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

“My fantasy is to make Buffalo the eastern hub of the Frank Lloyd Wright world,” Sandoro said.