Roadside artifact in downtown Seattle now on sale

Update, July 9, 2021:

Over the past few days, a small triangle of land along Denny Way and an odd little brick building – which KIRO Radio listeners learned last week was once home to a grand and glorious 1930s gas station – have been put on the market. A company called Westlake Associates released a flyer earlier this week, although as of Friday morning the 0.12-acre plot is yet to be listed on the company’s website.

Late Thursday, KIRO Radio contacted the broker listed on the flyer to find out more; so far there has been no response. The King County appraiser values ​​the property at around $ 3 million, but Westlake Associates says the price is “negotiable.” Assuming the property is sold for redevelopment, it looks like a new structure could be between 240 and 440 feet in height.


Original story, published June 30, 2021:

Summer road travel season has arrived, and with the end of the pandemic, the desire to get out on the freeway and cover terrain is even more intense than ever. It is also the 65th anniversary this week of the passage by Congress – and the signing of President Dwight D. Eisenhower – of the legislation that created the interstate highway system in 1956.

But a forgotten Seattle roadside landmark dates from a slightly earlier “golden age of highway travel” in the 1930s. Even though it was the years of the Great Depression, it was also a era of great American roads and great American roadside architecture.

This odd little structure sits in what is now a parking lot along Denny Way at 7th Avenue and Dexter. It’s just east of the old Elephant Car Wash sign until last year. This roadside artifact is a small, two-story octagonal brick kiosk. It looks a bit like a sawn-off silo, and there are still signs of the most recently installed trade there: a skateboard shop.

However, examining old photos from the Seattle municipal archives and with the help of Washington state architectural historian Michael Houser, it becomes clear that the odd little building was once a small station- pretty amazing service.

This “BEACON” gas station officially opened on May 17, 1933, which was also the same day that the new and improved Aurora Avenue opened – “from Denny Way over the George Washington Memorial Bridge to its North End”, according to a newspaper account of the time, with this “North End” considered the limit of the city at the time, or 85th Street.

The George Washington Memorial Bridge, better known as the Aurora Bridge, had opened to traffic a year earlier, but the completion of the stretch of road between Denny Way and the southern end of the span was a key link in the ‘itinerary.

In 1933 – nearly two decades before the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel radically altered the layout of downtown Seattle and the old route of the main highway through the city – the short Diagonal stretch of 7th Avenue, which runs along the west side of the triangle-shaped, was actually US Highway 99, the main north-south route between the Mexican border and the Canadian border. So this weird little triangle, which now looks like an isolated wasteland, was actually a great place to open a gas station in 1933.

And it wasn’t just any old gas station. Atop the octagonal kiosk was a giant rotating neon sign – narrow and shaped like a three-sided pillar, probably 20 feet high – that spun at a speed of three times per minute. According to newspaper accounts, the sign and exterior of the building were adorned with 300 feet of neon tubes. And although the station was called “BEACON”, the words spelled vertically on the sides of the sign were “SIGNAL”, “MARINE” and “UNION 76”.

These were the three separate brands of gasoline dispensed from a total of nine pumps. In addition to the kiosk, the pumps and the spaces between the three pumping islands also included a large canopy. Within a few years, the “MARINE” and “UNION 76” brands disappeared from 7th and Denny, and the station only offered SIGNAL brand gas.

The SIGNAL brand had arrived in Seattle in the spring of 1933, just in time for the opening of the new station, along with other locations in Puget Sound. The brand was launched in California in the 1920s and then made a splash on the West Coast in 1933 as the company expanded into Oregon and Washington and sponsored the Tarzan radio program. The radio show, starring Tarzan, Jane and other characters made famous by Edgar Rice Burroughs books and films, was squarely aimed at children. In Seattle, he was heard three times a week – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7:15 p.m. on KJR.

The coordinated campaign of newspaper advertisements for SIGNAL from 1933 is quite exaggerated. They claim that SIGNAL gas “gives the power of Tarzan” and they show the loincloth-clad hero wrestling with a crocodile or, in one version, about to stab a tiger with a dagger.

Those newspaper ads – along with the associated billboards and radio spots – are reminiscent of the dirty little secret of gasoline: It’s all the same, everything comes from the same refineries, and no gas gives you better. mileage or is better for your Terraplane or Hupmobile. This is why marketers have had to go out of their way to convince consumers to choose their product over other brands for other, perhaps a little less rational, reasons.

By sponsoring the Tarzan radio show – and creating the “Signal Tarzan Club” for young boys and girls – the oil company has motivated kids to pester mom and dad about which gas station to visit and which gas to buy. SIGNAL did, but other oil companies did, including Richfield – whose kid-focused “Jimmie Allen Flying Club” was actually based in a building near Lake Union in Seattle in the 1930s. .

It’s the SIGNAL building that represents just about all that remains of the brand in Seattle these days, which might attest to its brick construction or perhaps its original design.

And who designed the octagonal kiosk?

With help from the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, copies of old permits and plans reveal that the gas station was designed by a Seattle architect named George Wellington Stoddard.

The name Stoddard is not as recognizable as other 20th century Seattle architects, such as Paul Thiry or Victor Steinbrueck. But a read of Stoddard’s biography on the Washington State Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation website reveals a number of recognizable buildings he designed, including the South Grandstand at Husky Stadium (this is NOT the one that collapsed); the former Aqua Theater in Green Lake, part of which is still standing; and the beleaguered and underrated Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center.

Why doesn’t George Wellington Stoddard get more credit for the sustainable work he has done here? State architectural historian Michael Houser says there are several reasons.

“I think he’s really one of the top 10 underrated players, but I mean he’s done stuff statewide and has certainly had a very long and prolific career,” Houser told KIRO Radio. “He was definitely a player during the [early to mid 20th century], and just not as highly rated because no one has really studied it very deeply or it hasn’t done some great buildings.

“He’s done a lot of residential properties and he’s done a lot of schools and little structures,” he continued, “and pretty cool little commercial buildings here and there,” including the SIGNAL station.

It wasn’t just in Seattle where SIGNAL was well known for building visually striking stations. There is still an old SIGNAL station in the St. John neighborhood of Portland dating back to 1939. In the early 2000s, the building – including its neon sign and other architectural neon tubes – was restored and has been operating as Signal Station Pizza since 2006.

While it might not turn into a pizza place, there’s a good chance the old SIGNAL gas station on Denny Way probably won’t be around for very long in any form. The private owner could not be reached, but the King County Assessor’s Office website says the land is worth around $ 2.8 million, which means a parking lot or skateboard shop will probably not be deleted either.

In the meantime, some of the original hardware and gas station accessories – including one of the three original pump islands and various pieces of metal – still appear to be in place.

Architect George Wellington Stoddard died in 1967, but it is difficult to determine when the property ceased to serve as a gas station, although it appears that the SIGNAL brand disappeared around 1960. The canopy and pumps were withdrawn shortly thereafter, but a check with the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) on the condition of the underground gasoline storage tanks was inconclusive.

In an email, Cheryl Ann Bishop of DOE wrote: “It is possible that the tanks were gone long before [we] started to follow the sites. Underground Storage Tank (UST) sites had essentially two options when the UST program began in 1988, 1) register the tanks with the state and become part of the UST regulated community or 2) shut down the site (stop using the tanks).

“There was no need to register them, which meant we wouldn’t have a file on them,” Bishop continued. “In some cases the property was redeveloped years later and the reservoir was reported to [the Department of] Ecology because of the contamination found during the redevelopment, but this is not the case here.

“The short answer is we don’t know, and the only way to find out would be to look underground at the site,” she concluded.

According to City of Seattle records, the owner terminated the gas station’s license to use the gas station in 1987, a time that could suggest this step was perhaps taken to do exactly what DOE’s Cheryl Ann Bishop described.

Regarding the Elephant Car Wash sign which was in front of the old SIGNAL, MOHAI indicates that restoration work is underway.

“The Elephant Car Wash panel is still under restoration at Western Neon and we are exploring exhibition ideas at some point,” Kristin Halunen, the museum’s collections resources manager, wrote in an email. “No schedule yet, and they have to replace some of the neon, fix rust and stabilization issues, and touch up the paint.”

Who knows, when these neon car wash sign display ideas go behind the scenes at MOHAI, they might be able to incorporate an old SIGNAL ad showing Tarzan battling an elephant.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, find out more about him.here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Felikshere.