When is a gas station good for a street corner?
Wait, let me rephrase that: When isn’t it?
Only when there are two or three gas stations, like in the old days.
An urban street corner that’s commercially zoned ought to have some old buildings left over from the streetcar era, preferably one- or two-story structures that give the intersection a sense of place. One gas station doesn’t hurt.
In fact, a gas station can add that clichéd quality we’re told a city should have: vibrancy.
It seems counterintuitive, especially if you think of a gas station as a noisy hive of exhaust and tired scratchy voices on the loudspeaker telling Pump 2 to go ahead. But consider the intersection of Diamond Lake Boulevard and Nicollet Avenue S. It’s a catalog of old and new styles, and you could make the argument that’s all the more interesting because it has a gas station — and a strip mall, too.
I’m serious. But to explain, we need to step back in time.
The intersection of Diamond Lake and Nicollet was once part of Richfield, but Minneapolis thought it was a peachy little patch, and annexed the area in 1927. Photos of the intersection from the Jazz Age depict structures we recognize today, including a single-story brick building on the northeast corner with a mix of businesses. Then: hardware, grocery. Today: hardware, martial arts, dry cleaning.
On the southwest corner, you’ll find another one-story brick building — until recently, it housed an independent barbershop, which gives the intersection neighborhood charm — plus some boutiques and an appliance store. Aside from paint jobs and awnings, it’s been the same for almost a century.
The southeast corner once had an old house, which predated the commercial structures. It was knocked down for a tiny strip mall, with parking facing the street side, because it was built in the 1950s and we were all about cars. The mall has a done-on-the-cheap modern look — a roof with a jaunty angle, a brick facade made to look as if the stores are separate structures, not part of a small mall.
If the mall contained a single, chain drugstore, it would look prefab and suburban. As it is, it looks almost historic, with several small shops to give it visual interest. Bonus points: an ancient neon sign advertising Chow Mein. Extra bonus points: You can still get chow mein.
And on the northwest corner? That’s the Holiday station.
Sure, it’s just a gas station, but it helps make for a lively corner. Without it, the intersection would be much less interesting to experience. Four corners of brick buildings with boutiques and bagel shops would be a drive-through. You might think, “I should stop one day.”
Add a gas station, and you’ve created an incentive for people to stop and look around while they pump. “Hey, there’s some neon. Look at that, a little BBQ joint. … ”
It’s not that a gas station is essential for an interesting urban intersection, but it’s more useful to more people than another brick structure with some shops. It brings visitors a chance to experience the neighborhood for a few idle minutes.
Half a block to the north, at 54th and Nicollet, is Wise Acre Eatery, housed in what had been, of course, a gas station, one from the era of tail fins and leaded regular. Across 54th, the fairy-cottage structure that’s home to Tangletown Gardens is one of the city’s few remaining Pure Oil gas stations.
That’s right, 54th and Nicollet once had two gas stations. And that’s usually one too many. But the fact that they both survived, were restored to their original style and are home to successful businesses helps makes the neighborhood worth a visit — for flowers or a bite to eat, and a brief lesson in the styles of old gas stations.
In 50 years, the Holiday station may not be there. If every car has a tiny cold-fusion reactor in the trunk, no one will be pulling up for fuel. It will likely be knocked down for housing someday. The Minnehaha Mall might meet the same fate. The corner would be denser, and probably better. But drivers would pass on through.
We’re not there yet. You can still lean against the car on a summer night, listen to the music on the tinny loudspeaker, and wonder how old that neon sign on the BBQ stand might be.
A gas station doesn’t save an intersection. But it’s guaranteed to get people out of their car, if only for a minute or two.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858