The expressway construction craze that began in the 1950s was not kind to traditional downtown districts, including that of San Antonio, Texas. Monster expressways slashed through the heart of the city, redirecting much of the downtown's residential and business blood toward the booming suburbs. Hundreds of old buildings were razed to make way for the onslaught of concrete and asphalt, and just as many were abandoned, condemned to a slow death from neglect.
Vast amounts of money have gone into the resuscitation of the city's downtown, including the restoration of many of the surviving historic buildings and neighborhoods, and the construction of a beautiful River Walk. Despite all the improvements, San Antonio's central city has a Disneyland, tourist-oriented feel that lacks the buzz of a downtown where people live, party, shop and do business twenty-four-seven.
What seems to have survived this wave of destruction and reconstruction are hundreds of tiny pre-World-War II gas stations. A few are virtually intact, the same as they were when the owners walked away perhaps during the tough economic times of the 1930s. Fewer still have been converted to modern uses that respect original architectural details. Dozens have been turned into taco or ice-cream stands by Mexican owners with electric color palettes in mind. Many are empty and tottering, looking as if the next strong wind might knock them down.
Regardless of their condition or aesthetic significance, these ubiquitous relics appear to survive under an impregnable bubble. I asked some locals and no one knew exactly what kept the stations from being demolished. One mentioned the work of a "a bunch of gray-hair preservationist ladies in tennis shoes." But there also seems to be an unwritten commandment against messing with these small, vulnerable structures.
You quickly learn to pick them out by their basic bone structure hidden under a myriad architectural disguises—Art Deco, Mediterranean, Tudor or utilitarian 1950s modern. Spotting them along some of the main thoroughfares—Fredericksburg Road, San Pedro, Broadway, St. Mary's Road—became a game for Stew and me. Stew had the far better eye.
Below are some samples from our gas station tour of San Antonio.
|(1) 1021 Laredo Street. This station, built around 1938, has a |
ghostly aura. Except for the missing gas pumps and the boarded-up
windows and doors, it looks pretty much as it did when the owner
shut it down. Nowadays it sits, looking rather helpless but
untouched, tucked between an arterial expressway, a huge
billboard above and a noisy dog kennel behind. Across the street
is a modern Candlewood Suites hotel. If that billboard ever
blows down, it's all over for this tiny gem.
(3) 1021 Laredo Street. The gas pumps are long gone,
but the post for the air hoses, neatly painted red, remains.
(4) 1021 Laredo Street. The peaked tin roof and the ziggurat tile
pattern can be found in other gas stations in San Antonio.
(5) King William District. Located at one of the entrances of the
King William Historic District, this former Texaco station's cabin
style reminded me of something one would find in the backwoods
of Wisconsin. Not much was done to it when it was converted
into a drive-through beer and snacks store with a small outdoor sitting
area. Many of the homes in the nearby King William District have been
so fastidiously and fussily restored that looking at them
for too long makes your teeth hurt.