A few days after the Oct. 1 earthquake, the gloomy word from corporate headquarters was that the doors were likely to close at Carol Anne’s Uptown Union in Whittier.
The news spread through the Uptown Village business district, and loyal patrons stopped by to express concern. Others wrote letters to corporate officials, asking that the 59-year-old neighborhood landmark be spared.
And a few weeks later, the oil company relented, deciding to pour more than $120,000 into the renovation of Carol Anne’s.
The object of these passionate pleas for preservation was not a distinguished civic building or imposing museum. It was a gasoline station.
Old Ties Count
Whittier is a city of loyalties, some of them quite peculiar. D. Rex Van Alstine, a 20-year customer of Carol Anne’s, tried to explain why he felt strongly enough about a gasoline station to write four supportive letters to its corporate parent, Unocal, formerly the Union Oil Co. of California.
“Yes, it’s weird,” said Van Alstine, a Whittier dentist whose mother also patronizes the station. “Whittierites’ loyalties are not restricted to museums, libraries, theaters, depots and the like. (The station) is something of a landmark here in Whittier and I’m interested in preserving as much of Whittier as possible.”
The service station at the corner of Hadley Street and Comstock Avenue has been in operation since 1929, making it the oldest station in town, said dealer Dave Butler. He bought the station for about $70,000 two years ago and named it for his wife, Carol Anne.
Business had been steadily improving until the earthquake ruptured the station’s underground tanks, releasing about 7,000 gallons of gasoline into the soil, Butler said. Given the station’s sales volume, Butler said corporate officials initially told him that renovating it would not be worth the investment.
A Unocal spokesman conceded that local support for Carol Anne’s was a factor in deciding to keep the station open. “Based strictly on the economics, we probably would have still gone ahead with it,” the spokesman said, referring to the restoration. “But Dave had real good community support, and that’s something we count also.”
Butler, 43, is a familiar face in the community. He bought the station after his retirement from 19 years as a Whittier police officer, and he has lived in the city since he was in high school.
He was a customer of the station during the 27 years it was owned by Bob Bailey, a descendant of one of Whittier’s founding families, and Butler even worked there briefly in 1966.
When Unocal wanted to close the station after the quake, Butler said the company offered him another dealership in Huntington Beach. He balked.
“I gambled everything I had” to buy this station, Butler said while sitting in his office, where motorcycle-racing trophies from his younger days sit on top of metal file cabinets. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
He won the war to keep his business in Whittier, but repair and replacement work kept the station from pumping gasoline for two months and 16 days, costing Butler about $60,000 in business. He said he also had to lay off five employees during the rebuilding period.
The garage remained open for car repairs in the midst of renovation, but Butler said that many customers stayed away because of construction equipment that blocked entry for weeks.
Gasoline started flowing again a couple of weeks ago from 16 new pumps connected to two new 10,000-gallon underground tanks. Officials of Los Angeles County and the federal Environmental Protection Agency were frequent visitors during construction to ensure that contaminated soil was removed and disposed of properly.
Now, Butler says life at the station is mostly back to normal. Mechanics and pump attendants work to the twang of a country music radio station echoing through the garage area, good-naturedly teasing Butler about his potential as a media star resulting from the publicity he is receiving.
But there are reminders of October’s earthquakes, too, such as boarded-up windows along the back side of the station and a pile of gasoline-contaminated dirt waiting to be carted from one small corner of the property.
Butler smiles as he mentions the many customers who have stopped by Carol Anne’s recently to say, “Good to have you back.”
“This is their gas station, just like they have their drugstore and their grocery store,” he said. “Whittier is small town U.S.A. You could put this city right in the middle of Ohio and it would fit right in. I know that, and that’s the key.”