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Saving Alabama's Historic Gas Stations

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You get something more at your happy motoring store. You get more, more to cheer for...

Unidentified Man: With new Esso Extra gasoline!

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You get more, more value...

Unidentified Man: With Esso Extra motor oil!


If you drive across Alabama and look along the sides of the slower roads, you'll see gas stations from every era: the glamorous curves of the '30s, the sleek steel sides of the '60s. Remember Esso, Gulf, Standard Oil, Richland Oil? The Alabama Preservation Alliance and the Alabama Historical Commission have just named historic gas stations around the state places of peril, historic sites in significant danger. Melanie Betz is an architectural historian at the commission. She joins us from her office in Montgomery.

Thanks for being with us.

Ms. MELANIE BETZ (Architectural Historian, Alabama Historical Commission): Thank you.

SIMON: And what makes a gas station historic, something worth preserving?

Ms. BETZ: Well, this is the great influence of the automobile during the 20th century. And no other building type was really more influenced by the rise of the automobile than the gasoline or service station. And these structures are tangible reminders of our past.

SIMON: Why have so many historical gas stations gone out of use?

Ms. BETZ: Well, I think it's the evolution from kind of the mom-and-pop gas stations to the mass-produced, you know, kind of a universal design.

SIMON: Well, what happens when a gas station goes out of business? Who owns it?

Ms. BETZ: They fall into private hands, and they're just abandoned. A lot of times, of course, these gas stations were on roads that are no longer traveled, you know, small towns that have basically dried up.

SIMON: Yeah. Historically, Miss Betz, were some of the first gas stations also attached to motels or bed and breakfasts?

Ms. BETZ: Well, I think the very earliest gas stations were, you know, single-room, metal, prefabricated sheds.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BETZ: And then it wasn't really until a little bit later, meaning like the 1940s and '50s, did they start also being connected to travel, you know, like motels and places like that.

SIMON: Do you have any favorite gas stations?

Ms. BETZ: Well, I love the 1930s and 1940s stations.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BETZ: I especially love, like, those art moderne stations.

SIMON: Oh, yeah.

Ms. BETZ: But also the ones that are like little houses, too, more of the 1920s buildings.

SIMON: Miss Betz, thank you very much.

Ms. BETZ: Mm-hmm. Thank you. Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Melanie Betz, architectural historian at the Alabama Historical Commission, which has just declared the state's historic gas stations places of peril.

(Soundbite of "Tiger in Your Tank")

Unidentified Man #2: I can raise your hood, I can change your coils, check your transmission fluid, give you the oil. I don't care what the people say, I got to put a tiger, you know, in your tank. ...(Unintelligible). There ain't but one thing left for you to do.

SIMON: Muddy Waters, "Tiger in Your Tank." Twenty-two minutes before the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Weekend Edition Saturday
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.