“Watch the little gas station,” Frank Lloyd Wright wrote in 1930, just as he was beginning to conceive what would become Broadacre City, his plan for a sprawling, automobile-based utopia. The gas station was its social nexus and its symbol. Wright’s vision was incredibly prescient—he anticipated the current suburban landscape of endless cloverleafs and mammoth truck stops—and it strongly colored the last 25 years of his work, which was largely dedicated to the kind of small-scale residences called for in his decentralized city of the future. “In one sense, everything Wright built post-1932 was a piece of Broadacre,” says Tim Quigley, a Minneapolis architect and a Wright scholar. Yet only a handful of buildings from the project were ever fully realized; one, appropriately enough, was a gas station in the small town of Cloquet, Minnesota, and it celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.
In the early 1950s, Wright built a house for a local family, the Lindholms, after Joyce Lindholm, whose father distributed gasoline and home-heating oil, studied the architect in college and encouraged her parents to seek him out. “Wright had designed a gas station for Broadacre probably thirty years earlier,” Mike McKinney, Joyce’s son, says, “and when he learned about my grand-father’s business, he basically took that concept and applied it to the station.” The Lindholm station is reminiscent of the architect’s Prairie homes, with a cantilevered, copper-clad canopy and skylit service bays. “The mechanics are always working in natural light,” says Jennifer Webb, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “If you ask them, they say that that is absolutely the greatest feature.” The design was never replicated en masse as the architect had intended, but, according to Wright Sites, it helped popularize the now ubiquitous overhang, and other elements (including an angled plan that afforded sight lines, and generous, slanted windows) were appropriated for Phillips 66 stations across the country.
Wanting motorists to think of the gas station as a social space rather than a pit stop, Wright designed a glassed-in lounge on the second floor with commanding views of the river, and he hoped that residents would gather there over coffee. But as with his grandiose plan for Broadacre (“He imagined that we were all going to have pseudohelicoptors and nuclear-powered barges,” Webb says), he got the broad strokes right but failed to anticipate how the small social connections would eventually fray. Customers didn’t want to spend time in a gas station—and those who did often had unseemly ideas. “People did unpleasant things in it, spit gum in it,” Webb says. “All the things that people do when they think they’re not being watched.” Ultimately, after the lounge was vandalized in the 1960s and ’70s, the family locked it up. But this summer’s anniversary celebration—which brought Robert Pond, the Wright apprentice who supervised construction, back to Cloquet—could help restore Wright’s vision. McKinney and his brother, who own and lease the station, refurbished it before the festivities and are considering a sweeping renovation, in anticipation of perhaps turning it into a museum one day. McKinney shared his idea with Pond, now 82 and living in Montana. “I said, ‘I wish we could have spent more time,’” he recalls, “and Bob says, ‘I want to come back and finish this job.’”