The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of CommercialSpace in Los Angeles, 1914-1941

The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of CommercialSpace in Los Angeles, 1914-1941

by Richard W. Longstreth

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Richard Longstreth is one of the few architectural historians to focus on ordinary commercial buildings - buildings usually associated with commercial builders and real estate developers rather than architects and thus generally overlooked by historians of "high" architecture. Here Longstreth explores the early development of two kinds of retail space that have become… See more details below


Richard Longstreth is one of the few architectural historians to focus on ordinary commercial buildings - buildings usually associated with commercial builders and real estate developers rather than architects and thus generally overlooked by historians of "high" architecture. Here Longstreth explores the early development of two kinds of retail space that have become ubiquitous in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. One space, external, is devoted to the circulation and parking of automobiles on retail premises. Longstreth analyzes the origins of this development in the 1910s and 1920s, with the super service station and then the drive-in market. The other type of space was introduced soon thereafter with the single-story supermarket, its interior designed for high-volume turnover of a large selection of goods with a minimum of staff assistance. Longstreth focuses on Los Angeles, the principal center for the development of both kinds of space, during the period from the mid-1910s to the early 1940s. This richly illustrated study integrates architectural, cultural, economic, and urban factors to describe the evolution of retailing and how it has affected the urban landscape.

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Editorial Reviews

Ralph Rugoff
Marred by none of the gushy thinking and gassy excess of the `cultural studies' industry, Longstreth's concise account advances, with the clear, plain logic of a perfectly organized aisle at Lucky, a thesis that should make every Angeleno proud: Besides Hollywood, our city can claim to be the source of another worldwide cultural export, namely, the supermarket... The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone who's ever struggled to defend, either while moving or while stationary, Los Angeles' unique cultural contributions.
LA Weekly
New York Times Book Review
... it will fascinate with its black and white photographs of the first drive-in markets, circa 1924 (the precursors of shopping centers.)
Publishers Weekly
... he unearths intriguing information and a cache of fascinating photos.
LA Weekly - Ralph Rugoff
Longstreth's concise account advances, with the clear, plain logic of a perfectly organized aisle at Lucky, a thesis that should make every Angeleno proud.

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MIT Press
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Product dimensions:
7.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Chapter One


By the late 1920s, gasoline stations in Los Angeles enjoyed a national reputation. No other metropolitan area, it seemed, had so many stations that were large, convenient, and sometimes ornate where one could purchase a wide range of goods and services for the car. A writer for Printer's Ink Monthly, a leading organ for the advertising field, remarked that "when you first drive up ..., it is not difficult to imagine that you are being taken care of by guardian angels." But the author was of two minds about retail outlets where consumer contact was with the technician rather than with sales personnel—a relationship he dubbed "monkey-wrench merchandising." Many professed technicians were incompetent, he asserted; others were unscrupulous; still others were incapable of speaking a language customers could comprehend. On the other hand, the technician could be far more effective in this contact role than could someone savvy in merchandising alone. The technician knows the product as the salesperson never can; the technician also may be much more concerned with quality than with rapid turnover of goods.

    Like many others of the period, the account misjudged both the California phenomenon it used as a prime example and the fundamental changes that were beginning to occur in mass distribution. The gasoline station was presented as a case of consumer abuse. The motorist might be pampered while getting the tank filled, but other service facilities were

usually leased ... to any farmer who has the few hundred dollars necessary. When one farmer'ssavings are gone, another is generally ready, eager and willing.... The filling station proprietor ... sublets these shops for what he can get out of them. After a series of tenants have scrambled a series of motorists' batteries and so forth, the effect is seen in falling sales.... The motorist who has been stung in the service shops avoids that station. Then the proprietor ... may go out of business, and somebody takes his place. And so on.

    Some California gasoline stations no doubt suffered from poor management, but so bleak an overall picture is not substantiated by the record. Had service been that poor, these facilities would never have proliferated the way they did during the 1920s, first in Los Angeles, then throughout the state and in many other parts of the country. Nor would the concept have substantially affected the way in which major oil and tire companies approached retailing. The technicians employed at a super service station, as these outlets were called, often came to the job with considerable experience. Their skills were profiled by the local press in the same way as those of leading personnel of new food, drug, variety, and even department stores. The super station was the product of persons immersed in the world of motor cars. As a phenomenon, it represented the strengths, not the weaknesses, of monkey-wrench merchandising. Equally important, the type demonstrated new ways in which related businesses could operate effectively in an integrated fashion. Through this form of merchandising, an entirely different approach was taken to arranging retail facilities, one that accommodated motorists on the premises. Thanks to the technician, the easy movement of cars determined the entire configuration. A process thus was introduced that would eventually revolutionize the planning of retail facilities. Nothing like it had happened before.


In Los Angeles, as in other cities, concern for architecturally accommodating the automobile was slow to gain momentum, even after driving became a routine occurrence. Until the late 1920s, most of the solutions developed for off-street parking had no significant impact on the appearance of the buildings they served and little effect on the character of urban development. Parking lots were considered residue space. Unlike traditional open areas in cities and towns, these facilities were incidental voids. They were considered unsightly gaps in the urban matrix, exposing the unadorned side walls of adjacent buildings and enhancing the opportunities for outdoor advertisements (figure 1). The situation was no different for commercial districts in outlying areas. Through most of the 1920s, space specifically devoted to off-street parking was rare outside the urban core. Most such facilities served neighborhood movie houses, which drew more motorists than curbside parking could accommodate (figure 2). Even when conceived as an integral component of a business, the parking lot seldom affected the design of the building. The streetfront orientation of stores remained unaltered; walls facing lots were as plain as those never intended for public view.

    The other principal means of automobile storage was the parking garage, which, like the parking lot, was almost always located downtown during the 1920s. Some garages fully bespoke their utilitarian role, but most were embellished on the exterior, generating customer appeal by complementing the commercial buildings around them (figure 3). Spatially, these facilities did not alter any aspect of the urban landscape; they simply added a new function to those housed in multistory business blocks. Similarly, garages in office buildings affected exterior design in a minimal way. Most were set below grade. Portals to those subterranean levels were sometimes no more than openings located toward or at the rear of the building. Even when conspicuously placed, they were treated much like other streetfront bays save for the absence of enclosing partitions.

    While practical matters were dominant in shaping early automobile accommodation, a deeply rooted cultural concern for familiarity also affected the outcome. People react to changes in their physical setting in ways that are difficult to predict. For this reason among others, pronounced departures tend to be mitigated by features rooted in the past, particularly in the commercial sphere, where the development's success depends upon attracting people as tenants and customers. In both the city center and new outlying areas, the great majority of commercial buildings constructed through the 1920s adhered to the age-old tradition of fronting the street, abutting the sidewalk, occupying most (if not all) of the property frontage, and extending for much of the property's depth. With few exceptions, buildings were not treated as freestanding objects, but as parts of a connective wall that distinguished private from public realms. The car was accommodated by channeling it through essentially conventional forms of open space. Public works programs of the early twentieth century widened and straightened thousands of municipal streets nationwide, and sometimes created street systems to encourage more diffuse forms of traffic flow. Nevertheless, the basic order was based on time-honored relationships between open public spaces and enclosed private spaces. However difficult the fit, the automobile conformed to these conditions far more than it modified them.

    Allocating prime private space to the automobile and using this feature to generate the overall design of a commercial facility serving other purposes was an alien concept, even to many Angelenos, through the 1920s and later. However convenient, car lots were seen as a waste of space and money by retailers and as unattractive blotches on the face of the city by the proponents of civic improvement. The first significant change to this approach came in the workaday field of car service itself. The initial step came with the development of a brand-new building type—the filling station—which was conceived in the unstructured, unorthodox world of monkey-wrench merchandising.


The filling station had to perform simple tasks, but they were ones never before required of a building: dispensing gasoline and motor oil to mechanized vehicles. Both the elementary and novel nature of this function contributed to the early establishment of a design pattern that broke decisively from conventional uses of space. Property frontage was left open so that motorists could pull off the street and maneuver on the premises. This arrangement was born out of necessity. Of the possible alternatives, placing fuel pumps alongside the curb spawned a host of problems, including bottlenecks. Constructing a building into which cars could enter for refueling incurred prohibitive costs unless the facility was also used for related functions, such as automobile service or parking—a factor that greatly limited the number of such examples. Situating pumps in alleys or rear service courts was never an option, as it would have made it difficult to attract customers.

    The response to these circumstances was straightforward. Since the building needed to be no more than an enclosed kiosk, it was easily located back from the street so that cars could still be serviced at its front. The archetypal configuration of commercial architecture thus was transformed from a lot-filling, street-oriented establishment that clearly defined the boundary between public and private space, to one in which space was continuous, the separation of the two realms perceptually minimal, and the building proper a midspace object occupying only a fraction of the property. Despite its mundane purpose, modest size, and utilitarian appearance, the filling station was a revolutionary work that gave birth to the drive-in concept, whereby providing space for cars became the principal determinant of the setting, configuration, and sometimes even the internal layout of the facility.

    Early examples of the type often manifested their new characteristics in a limited way. The standardized design for National Supply Stations, perhaps the first chain of such outlets in Los Angeles, represented the drive-in concept at a nascent stage when the initial units opened in 1913 (figure 4). The building was a utilitarian box fronted by a shed-roof portecochere sheltering a single pump. To get service, motorists were restricted to a single path leading from the street, much like a driveway. Yet the arrangement proved easily adaptable to larger, looser formats. Within a few years, numerous facilities could accommodate two or more cars at the pumps and had space for additional ones on the premises.

    Matching convenience with the caliber of its product soon came to be associated with the filling station. The National Supply system was established by an alliance of prominent automobile dealers in Los Angeles and San Francisco to sell top-grade gasoline and motor oil at a low price. Their goal was to stem the widespread distribution of inferior products then supposedly plaguing the state. Elsewhere, the filling station often was introduced to a region by a leading petroleum company as a marketing instrument for its own supplies. At a time when few safeguards existed to protect the purchaser of poor-quality goods of this kind, the filling station stood as a symbol of assurance.

    By the early 1920s, Los Angeles's mystique as a center for automobile-related innovations was sufficiently established that a number of people in the petroleum business believed the filling station had originated there in 1912. In fact, examples of drive-in facilities could be found in St. Louis and other cities several years earlier. Southern California was nevertheless an important staging ground for new ideas due to the high incidence of automobile ownership there and the population's attachment to using those cars as much as possible. The region also was fast becoming a major center for the manufacture of petroleum and related products. The inclination to experiment was further encouraged by the mild climate, which obviated some of the costly building methods necessary in many parts of the United States. These circumstances contributed to an advance in the idea of a drive-in facility devoted to automotive service that greatly expanded both the scope of operation and the physical plant in which it was housed. The result was manifested in a grouping organized for the convenience of vehicular movement that soon came to be known as the super service station.


The filling station was still a new phenomenon when a major expansion of the concept, combining numerous related functions in a single facility, was introduced in Los Angeles just prior to World War I. At that time, filling stations sold gas and oil; lubrication and cleaning were done separately elsewhere. A variety of shops specialized in different kinds of repairs or in the sale of tires or other accessories. The gathering of these enterprises in the super service station offered considerable convenience to consumers still trying to master the demands of maintaining an automobile. After 1918, as car ownership swelled, the concept quickly became a popular one. Dozens of super stations were constructed in southern California during the early 1920s and hundreds more could be found nationwide by the decade's end. Although the super service station has been all but ignored in recent histories, it had a profound impact on the practice of retailing automotive products. These facilities constituted an essential link between the filling station and the service stations that became ubiquitous by the mid-1930s.

    The earliest known super service station was built around 1914 by the Washburn-Walker Company on Western Avenue, some three miles from downtown, prior to that street's rapid transformation into an important business artery. The location lay close to affluent and prosperous middle-class households in what was then Los Angeles's fastest-growing residential area. Called Service Town, the complex had a six-bay filling station with herms supporting its elaborate canopy. Behind lay a paved court, large enough to permit customers to make a full turn without reversing gears, surrounded by buildings for lubrication, body cleaning and polishing, crank-case cleaning, battery repairs, tire repairs, and accessories. Washburn-Walker offered a monthly car maintenance plan, including pickup and delivery of vehicles for people who did not wish to drive their own cars to the premises. The facility cost $35,000, a large sum at that time for any commercial establishment in an outlying area, but proved none too ambitious. Demand for services swelled to the point that the company soon erected a more modest second unit nearby to handle overflow traffic. Although the two Service Towns remained anomalies for several years, imitators began to appear after the war's end (figure 5). By 1922 the super service station idea gained acceptance to the point that it was being discussed as a trend.

    Customers appreciated the convenience of the super station. Early on, proprietors discovered that many motorists patronized the gas pumps because of the other services available and that these patrons were more inclined to have maintenance and repair work performed when it could be done at one place. The gas pumps were an essential frontispiece, as it were, to get motorists on the premises, but the greatest percentage of revenues came from the other components of the complex. The presence of each unit thus enhanced the appeal of the others. Package contracts for upkeep, personal attention to customer needs, and promotional campaigns became standard. The proprietor might run all the departments or lease some of them to specialists. Either way, the establishment was managed in a coordinated fashion. Automobile service thus entered the realm of modern retailing as an integrated business, that is, one with a number of distinct components run as a closely coordinated enterprise under single management.

    Super service stations flourished in southern California during the 1920s not just because of the amenities they offered motorists, but also because of intense competition among both oil companies and retailers. Low wholesale prices, combined with the rapid growth in demand, led to an oversupply of gasoline outlets. Directories listed about 170 filling stations in 1920, almost 700 in 1925, and more than 1,500 in 1930 for the city of Los Angeles alone. The abundance of retailers kept profit margins low on the average. In addition, the now fairly uniform quality of most petroleum products lessened the competitive advantage of each concern. A choice location, an elaborate physical plant, and aggressive advertising could spawn increased sales, but also added significantly to overhead. Major oil companies and independent dealers alike thus resisted making more than a modest investment in the filling station itself. However, if selling gas and oil alone provided few opportunities to increase profits, adding service, parts, and accessories allowed retailers to gain a competitive advantage, tapping into a vast potential market for sales.

    The immediate source of inspiration for the first Service Town remains unknown. Automobile dealers had included service facilities for some years, but not until the early 1920s did most of them realize that refashioning their service facilities, in a manner derived from the department store's business structure, could make them a significant source of revenue. At a time when most car dealers in Los Angeles and other cities were situated at the edge of the urban core, the super station proliferated because of its proximity to residential areas. The diffuse structure of the metropolis was, of course, a considerable advantage in this regard; super stations scattered along arteries throughout the region afforded more convenient service places for many people than did the concentrated nodes of automobile dealerships.

    The idea of one-stop shopping as a profitable venture outside core business areas was fostered at an early stage of the super station's development by the success of several large retail, or "public," markets erected in Los Angeles as early as 1913. Unlike their municipal forebears, these establishments were privately owned. Examples were built in many parts of the country during the early twentieth century, but the type seems to have enjoyed special popularity in California, in part due to that state's importance as a food distribution center and the absence of a tradition of municipal ownership. The growth of the public market owed much to management policies. Proprietors emulated chain company executives in using the department store as a model, focusing on product quality, service, and price and advancing these attributes through aggressive promotional campaigns. But in contrast to the typically small unit of the chain grocery store, the public market had a great array of goods, often including many specialized items. In early examples, each basic product type was sold by more than one concessionaire so that patrons could comparison-shop on the premises. The extent of the type's development in Los Angeles is suggested by the White Arcade, a pile encompassing over 32,000 square feet designed in 1914 for a close-in location at Main Street and Pico Boulevard, just south of downtown (figure 6). The layout was traditional to the type, with concessions oriented to a central circulation spine. The ambience, however, appears to have been fashioned after that of a department store, with the main space enframed by an arcade and culminating in a marble fountain and concert stage.

    The White Arcade and other public markets constructed in Los Angeles before World War I were located in or near the central business district. Within a few years, the type began to proliferate in outlying areas. Decentralization fostered the type's appeal, for shoppers could now find all basic types of food products under one roof close to home. Advertisements emphasized that goods were offered at "downtown" prices, which were lower than those at the small neighborhood store; this was a particularly attractive draw when food costs soared during the postwar years. Decentralization also seems to have led to modifications in the business structure of local public markets, which were consolidated to include only one large department for each basic category of product (groceries, produce, meat/ poultry/fish, baked goods were standard divisions). In this revised form, with four or five divisions, the operation could be managed more efficiently. Furthermore, the concessionaires often were chain organizations or branches of large regional companies that could contribute sound business practices and keep high prices at bay.

    Among the first wave of facilities constructed outside the city center, the Hollywood Public Market (1919-1920) was indicative of the trend (figure 7). Standing at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Street in the heart of the district's burgeoning business center, the emporium encompassed over 5,000 square feet of space, more than twice that of most neighborhood food stores, and housed eight departments, an unusually high number. When it opened, the Hollywood Public Market was considered something of a novelty; however, by the closing months of 1922 at least thirteen other examples existed within a two-mile radius. Most were about the same size, but the Beverly-Western Public Market (1921-1922) was considerably bigger at 15,000 square feet (figure 8). The expansiveness and location of this outlet probably were designed to secure drive-by customers as well as locally based trade; as it was situated at what had become a major intersection of automobile routes. It also lay conveniently between Western Avenue's two largest business centers in an area that had markedly less congestion, since the immediate environs were much less intensely developed. Similar siting techniques were used on a number of subsequent public markets beyond the city proper. The big Richardson's Market (1923) was constructed in the southern part of the bedroom community of Alhambra along a major east-west highway not far from an equally well traveled route connecting Pasadena and Long Beach (figure 9). Passing motorists may well have outnumbered local customers living in the rather thinly settled environs.

    The attention paid to driving patterns in the location and in the business structure of the public market provided useful models for the super service station at a time when the latter was ceasing to be a novelty. By the early 1920s, the public market demonstrated that carefully selected sites in outlying areas could be advantageous for a sizable business catering to routine needs. On the other hand, no models existed for the layout of the super station, and thus it was not surprising that no prevailing pattern emerged during the type's inceptive phase. Most layouts were designed to provide ample maneuvering space and as a result had a sizable open yard around which the departments were located on one or more sides. Often the arrangement was a loose configuration of buildings and unsheltered fixtures possessing little coherence in design or suggestion of investment beyond that required to meet basic needs (figures 10, 11). The fact that many super stations started as modest facilities and grew over a period of years contributed to such results.

    Whether constructed incrementally or in a single campaign, some complexes followed the sample of Service Town, using a repertoire of embellishments to convey the impression of a large, prosperous, and respectable business. Among the most famous of these California establishments was the Muller Brothers station in Hollywood, which began as a small operation around 1919 and expanded to include twenty departments occupying five acres by the late 1920s (figure 12). Like the original Service Town, the most prominent feature was an ornate, freestanding canopy sheltering rows of gasoline pumps and visually functioning as a gateway to the entire complex. This practice of architecturally addressing the street continued throughout the decade, in part to shade refueling motorists but also to make the facility relate to, and hence seem a respectable part of, established forms of outlying retail development (figure 13).

    The desire to conform to what were regarded as the salient qualities of the commercial landscape was shared by many of those involved with creating a new architecture to accommodate the automobile. Much as the fronts of downtown parking garages echoed those of office buildings, so those of many facilities designed for the repair and storage of cars in outlying areas possessed attributes associated with nearby taxpayer blocks. Some service garages also included store units along the street, minimizing the visual impact of the automobile-oriented functions that lay behind (figure 14). One of the most elaborate schemes was launched by the newly formed Standard Motor Service Company in 1919 as the first unit in a proposed chain of facilities. Located on Western Avenue not far from Service Town, the plan entailed much the same scope of departments as well as a large auto storage area on the second level. In their physical conception, however, the two enterprises could not have stood further apart (figure 15). Most of the Standard building was treated as utilitarian shelter, but was subordinated visually to a front section composed like a grand residence. A vehicular portal in the place of a front door provided the only architectural clue to the building's actual purpose that was conspicuous from the street.

    Counterpointing the forces of tradition and conformity was the need to meet a new series of programmatic requirements at a reasonable cost. Even without elaborate facades, fully enclosed garages were expensive to build because of the large amount of unencumbered indoor space they required. Having more than one level further necessitated using a costly steel or reinforced concrete structural system. With the super station, on the other hand, much of the space was left undeveloped save for grading and surfacing. The one or more buildings on the site covered short spans and could be erected employing substantially cheaper methods, just as with a modest taxpayer block. Furthermore, the demands of automobile storage and service were not always compatible. Achieving maximum profits from parked cars could impinge upon space needed for service, while servicing often spread dust and grime unwelcome to owners of stored vehicles. Service bays facing an open yard, which in turn had nothing other than a support function, seemed a far more efficient layout from the standpoint of both cost and use. The arrangement also carried associational benefits. While the garage was still seen as part of a man's world, the super station possessed a perceptual accessibility that was considered as appealing to women as to men. Openness, as it turned out, proved more important than a decorous front when one had to remain behind the wheel to enter the premises. Given the rapidly increasing number of female motorists during the 1920s, this factor became important in advancing the super station's development.

    Besides having a more inviting appearance than the service garage, the super station could convey its attributes to passing motorists so that the complex as a whole, not just a facade or signs, could serve as an effective advertisement. The streetfront canopy sheltering gas pumps might enhance the image of an operation in this respect. In 1922 Frank Muller remarked that, at his Hollywood outlet, "it is easily seen that quick and efficient delivery of car requirements are made with no delay to the customers."

    But another type of configuration, with an L-shaped building set toward the rear and enframing a large forecourt, proved optimal in allowing drivers to see at a glance the range of services offered. The L-shaped plan had no clear precedent; it seems to have emanated from a realization, or perhaps an instinctive sense, that fundamental differences in configuration would be necessary in designing a complex whose purpose could be understood at once by people traveling at significantly greater speeds than those of the streetcar or the pedestrian. Experiments of this nature began at an early phase of the super service station's development. Perhaps the first example was built by the Auto Super-Service Company around 1921, which also may have inaugurated, or at least helped popularize, the generic use of the name (figure 16). Here gas and oil were dispensed next to a corner kiosk. Wide driveways to either side clearly revealed the extent of the complex. The layout still indicated some reluctance to yield too much of the streetfront to open space. Bracketing walls on both the kiosk and service center visually contained the court, and that court's center was occupied by a large building for the sale of accessories. Moreover, access to the service center was from the street on one end of the L, with the exit the opposite extremity.

    The L-shaped configuration was soon refined in the layout of other complexes. The Calmos Service Station in Hollywood (1923) represented what became a typical arrangement over the next half-dozen years (figure 17). The kiosk still punctuated the corner to serve as a beacon, but, like a filling station, was oriented to the street, making access to the pumps more direct. The service building behind was equally conspicuous, topped with ersatz minarets and domes, its bays opening directly onto the forecourt. The spatial order was straightforward and the components unified: the two buildings formed an integrated whole that clearly conveyed the movement of cars on the premises. A balance thus was struck between defining the operation through architecture and allowing open space as the predominant feature. Setting was an important factor in achieving that equilibrium. Corner locations were generally considered desirable for super service and filling stations because of the visual prominence they afforded as well as their potential to draw customers from two streets instead of just one. With the L-shaped plan, the corner lot became a virtual necessity, both for purposes of identification and for unencumbered vehicular movement.

    By the mid-1920s, the super service station was becoming a common feature in the urban landscape of southern California. Layout, architectural treatment, and size continued to vary, but there were no significant deviations from the patterns established in the previous years. Large complexes sometimes included a cafe or even a few shops as added customer attractions (figure 18). Nevertheless, these marginally related functions were subordinate to the primary one of automobile care. The super station did not provide the nexus for more extensive building programs encompassing additional kinds of retail activities. Even a broader scope of automobile-related ones was unusual. A "motor department store" developed in 1926 by Hollywood businessman E. F. Bogardus—which contained two auto and two tire dealerships, along with outlets for accessories, electrical parts and batteries, and lubrication, as well as for gasoline and oil—was an anomaly in the region.

    Much the same consistency was evident in the diffusion of the super service concept to other parts of the United States, a process that took place from the mid-1920s through the decade's end. Generally, the repertoire of layouts and services followed southern California models. The most pronounced departure lay in image, which varied according to differences in climate and regional preferences in architecture (figure 19). In places where examples were not as ubiquitous as in southern California, entrepreneurs sometimes capitalized on novelty to create very ambitious complexes that attained a degree of local prominence seldom found in Los Angeles. In some cases, too, the super service station was combined with other functions, probably more as an expedient to increase revenue than as an integrated retail complex. A large station in the commercial center of Manhattan, Kansas, for example, included such disparate additional facilities as a flower shop, cafe, taxi company offices, and bus depot. Such complexes remained the exception, however. Few functions proved compatible with the messiness of automobile service and repair, and few entrepreneurs who pursued this realm of monkey-wrench merchandising appear to have had much interest in markedly different lines of business.


The one consequential addition to the super station's repertoire that emerged during the 1920s was the mechanized car wash, or auto laundry, as it was called. At that time, these facilities were closely tied to car maintenance and, in principle at least, were a logical extension of the super station's services. The type did not originate in southern California but some of the most significant contributions to its development occurred there, including the integration of related functions. The plethora of unpaved roads, in addition to the car's exposed mechanical parts and frequent casing leakage, made regular cleaning important to keep automobiles in good working condition. Commercial ventures devoted exclusively to this process were established in the Midwest as early as 1914, but methods other than hand scrubbing were still a novelty at the beginning of the next decade. Even with the introduction of air and water sprays, most auto laundries consisted of one or more stationary car racks, which positioned vehicles so that their undercarriages, sides, and tops could be washed. Often a minimal enclosure was erected to protect the equipment. By the mid-1920s, auto laundries of this elementary kind began to be built as appendages to filling stations in some parts of the United States; many others were erected as separate operations.

    Experiments with larger facilities were made as early as 1922 when a garage at St. Paul, Minnesota, erected an adjacent "wash bowl" where motorists could drive their cars around in a flooded basin to remove dirt from the underbody before leaving them for cleaning at the adjacent racks. At least one similar complex was built, this time in Chicago, but the idea was short-lived, perhaps owing to the fact that, as an open-air operation, it was unusable for much of the year in northern climates.

    A more sophisticated process was developed in 1923 by a Los Angeles enterprise, Wimsett System Auto Laundries, which constructed two outlets where cars moved on a circular platform while being cleaned in a processional, multistaged operation similar to an assembly line. Each facility was housed in a building that looked like an elaborate super service outlet and included a lunch room, an accessories dealer, and a filling station so that customers could perform several errands at one place (figure 20). Washing took from fifteen to twenty minutes, polishing about the same amount of time. The cost was high, with a minimum charge of $2.00. With these facilities, the auto laundry was transformed from a utilitarian shed into a neighborhood landmark and destination for motorists in much the same way that the most pretentious super stations were recasting the mundane activities of gasoline purchase and automobile repair.

    Over the next five years a number of competitors entered the business, constructing even more lavish plants. Speed was a primary objective. The quicker the service, the greater its appeal; the higher the volume, the lower the price. Pacific Auto Laundries boasted a ten-minute wash and a forty-minute cycle for washing, polishing, and cleaning the engine. Ever more elaborate equipment, including mechanical conveyors, was devised to reduce turnaround time. Probably the largest and most influential undertaking was El Patio Auto Laundry (1926-1927) built on South Vermont Avenue by a local realtor, B. K. Gillespie (figure 21). The building was less pretentious than some, but departed from precedent by including a wide range of other automobile services. Gillespie adopted the super station idea in its entirety, although he refused to employ the label, claiming that "the average so-called `super service station' of California is ... modest in contrast" to the "acre of service" found at his establishment. Besides nine departments for car repair and maintenance, this "service community" included a restaurant, beauty parlor, and clothes laundry that customers could use while waiting for their cars. Unlike the gas pumps of the super station, the enormous car wash formed the centerpiece of the whole operation and generated the greatest revenue.

    Within two years of El Patio's opening, E. H. Kron, a dealer in car accessories, and Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Association, approached Gillespie with a proposal to form a national chain of units patterned after the Los Angeles facility. Gillespie agreed, other businessmen joined the venture, and by the latter months of 1928 the Gillespie Automobile Laundry System had a string of operations on the west coast (San Diego, Long Beach, Pasadena, Oakland, and Portland) as well as others in Denver, Tulsa, St. Louis, and Atlanta. Twenty-eight additional units were under construction and a network of two hundred was envisioned. The biggest of these "super" auto laundries, such as those in Denver and Tulsa, were impressive not only in their size but in their elaborate appearance (figure 22). These buildings were in effect the ultimate super service stations, with few counterparts in southern California and far grander than most automobile-related facilities in their own communities. The Gillespie System set a new standard for such places nationwide, which was emulated, but probably never excelled, by competing companies.

Gillespie also had found an effective mix of functions for his auto laundry; but most attempts to expand into neighborhood retail functions failed to develop beyond singular experiments. By far the most lavish project of this kind in southern California was a complex for the Western Auto Wash Company. Designed in 1927 by Morgan, Walls & Clements, the most prominent Los Angeles architectural firm to create distinctive commercial buildings in outlying areas, the laundry building was festooned with Spanish classical details but composed as if it were an ancient Greek stoa, with a line of cars rather than pedestrians entering its portals (figure 23). Despite its decorous exterior, the facility sat far back from the street and soon was obscured from view by two even more ornate retail blocks housing a market, drug store, and other emporia catering to everyday needs (figure 24). Before or after cleaning, automobiles could pull up directly to the store buildings, whose rear elevations were treated as elaborately as their streetfronts. A filling station was also part of the ensemble (figures 25, 26). This arrangement encouraged motorists to combine errands and perhaps to have the car washed as often as they purchased food. However, for patrons who weren't following that pattern of consumption, the layout was unwieldy. Cars winding their way through the premises to be cleaned would inevitably cause traffic problems for shoppers wishing to go only to the stores. This mixture of functions may have been chosen to make the auto laundry seem more respectable, especially to women. That objective was harbored by B. W. Sinclair, owner of the Gillespie franchise for San Diego, who added streetfront stores to his facility so that "all the unsightly features heretofore associated with auto laundries [will be] entirely eliminated."

    Through Gillespie's own example, the auto laundry developed into a full-scale service center for cars. On the other hand, with few exceptions—such as the Muller Brothers complex in Hollywood—the super station never expanded to include a full-scale auto laundry operation. Auto laundries occupied a considerable amount of space and were difficult to add to existing plants. Furthermore, the cost of such a facility was at least $50,000, surpassing all but the most expensive super stations. Even if they had the space and the financial means, most super station operators could not add auto laundries because Gillespie and others who held patents on their respective "systems" were not eager to share them widely. Success for the auto laundry required a high-volume trade in a limited market. In selling franchises, Gillespie took pains to ensure that locations were so far removed from one another that no potential for competition could exist among them. The small cadre of others who promoted their own systems no doubt harbored the same concern. The market was also limited, due to the substantial cost of washing; as a result, most of these complexes were located near well-to-do residential areas.

    Behind such immediate obstacles to integration lay a basic difference in circumstances through which each type developed. The super station was conceived and operated by persons whose careers were closely tied to the automobile. Many individuals came to the field with experience in the manufacture or sales of cars or of related products. Others had worked at filling stations. Even when not previously employed in an automobile-related trade, most super stations owners were immersed in running their businesses, which often bore their names. Auto laundries, on the other hand, tended to be built as investments by men such as Gillespie whose expertise lay in other realms. At least in southern California, car washing was an externally generated phenomenon, the work of persons who, among their diverse ventures, underwrote costly mechanical inventions and equally costly installations with the hope of creating a lucrative new industry.

    Both the size and nature of the investment that so rapidly propelled the auto laundry into the limelight worked with even greater speed to arrest its development during the depression. Improvements to the process had lowered prices somewhat—Gillespie charged $1.50 for washing—but the service no doubt seemed ever more a luxury. Equally important, major improvements in both road surfaces and car manufacture rendered the car wash more cosmetic than utilitarian. Under the circumstances, the large, elaborate auto laundry of the 1920s remained an exceptional phenomenon. Even in Los Angeles, probably no more than two dozen such complexes were constructed. The idea did not reemerge as commercially attractive until the prosperous post-World War II years when, once more, southern California appears to have played a pivotal role.


Size and the owners' objectives also had a decisive impact on the fate of the super service station. In southern California and in other regions, most super stations were developed by independent retailers. The success of these operations soon attracted the interest of major tire and oil companies, whose eventual involvement had a significant impact on both the form of buildings and the nature of services they provided. As early as 1921, a costly super station was erected in Hollywood by the Pacific Rubber Company. Comparable ventures seem to have been few during the next several years, but national tire company sponsorship of super stations emerged as a major trend by the end of the decade. The three largest manufacturers—Firestone, Goodyear, and B. F. Goodrich—all of which had plants in Los Angeles, took the lead in developing full-service outlets, owing to the success of early experiments and to ongoing problems with retaining good dealers at their conventional outlets. By the late 1920s these companies began constructing facilities modeled on those of the independents, but bearing a distinct corporate imprint and with an authorized dealer running all departments except, perhaps, the filling station (figures 27, 28). During the 1930s, as independent owners played a less consequential role in the automobile service business, tire companies continued to build large service centers, and it is primarily through their participation that super service stations continued to be built into the mid-twentieth century.

    Major oil companies showed much greater reluctance to enter the super service field, even though a number of them took leases on the filling station component at an early stage in the type's development. Throughout the 1920s the petroleum producers' involvement in the retail field centered on selling their own products, relying heavily on brand recognition for sales. Super stations cost more to build, and running them required more time and effort than most salaried employees in the petroleum business were willing to invest. Yet by the late 1920s, oil companies sought to bolster retail profits beyond those possible from a filling station and to capture a share of the super station trade. The initial strategy focused on adding those services for which the demand was greatest—most commonly greasing, lubrication, minor repairs, and the sale of tires, batteries, and a few accessories. Southern California was an ideal place for experimenting with this idea because the mild climate enabled many such functions to be performed outdoors or with minimal shelter, thus keeping the cost of the physical plant well below that of the typical super station (figure 29).

    Once the financial soundness of providing a limited range of services was proven, oil companies began to create a new type of building tailored to that program. The result was a compact, freestanding, fully enclosed structure that generally contained one or two service bays adjacent to the office. This building type was relatively inexpensive to construct, designed with standardized components and graphics, and well suited to all parts of the country. At first these outlets were often called super service stations to take advantage of a term that had gained widespread appeal, but by the mid-1930s, when the type emerged as the industry standard, they became known simply as service stations (figure 30).

    Capitalizing on the super service station idea while at the same time transforming it enabled major petroleum companies to consolidate their leading position in the sale of basic automotive products and services. Both the role of the independent dealer and the super station declined during the 1930s. Relatively few examples were erected, save by tire companies, in southern California or elsewhere after the initial years of the depression. The decline was driven not as much by cost as by the major oil companies' discovery that sizable buildings were not a central determinant of profits. Numerous comparatively small service stations, scattered throughout an area, often could best serve most customers' needs most of the time. These circumstances enabled the type rapidly to become a ubiquitous fixture nationwide.

    The refinement of monkey-wrench merchandising in the automotive service field to form the most effective bridge between the large corporation and the consumer thus in time led to leaner, more compact outlets rather than larger, more organizationally complex ones. The super service station formed an important transitional stage in the sequence, but its most significant legacy lay in demonstrating how cars could effectively determine the setting and configuration of facilities catering to the motorist. The phenomenon also underscored the potential of integrated business development catering to routine needs on a small scale. Both characteristics served as direct models for the drive-in market, which began to develop in southern California while the super station was still in its infancy, and which served as a catalyst for changes that eventually had a profound impact on retail development in the United States.

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Longstreth's concise account advances, with the clear, plain logic ofa perfectly organized aisle at Lucky, a thesis that should make everyAngeleno proud." Ralph Rugoff, LA Weekly

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