The Gas Menagerie

Tamar Brott is a contributor to the So SoCal section of the magazine

The Gardens of Versailles have nothing on some L.A. gas stations. Ever since the city of Los Angeles began requiring its stations to landscape in the late ‘80s, pay-at-the-pumpers have come to expect birds of paradise between the supreme and unleaded. There’s even a bonsai fir in the Shell station at Washington Boulevard and Centinela Avenue. But the topiary rams loping down the hillside at the United Oil station on Pico Boulevard and La Brea Avenue may have you fearing fumes have gone to your head.

The rams are the calling card of Southern California gas station scion Jeff Appel, 40, whose desire to create filling stations of distinction has reached bravura heights. To date, he’s deployed topiary rabbits, squirrels, serpents, dinosaurs, tigers and trucks. At more than one station, topiary monkeys swing through topiary palms.

This revelation--animal-shaped bushes!--first struck Appel in 1991 while he was retrofitting a station in Corona del Mar. “I used to drive past this topiary place all the time, and one day I said to myself, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could have them do a Pegasus horse?’ ” he recalls, referring to Mobil’s longtime mascot.


The moment she heard his request, topiary designer Linda Berker labeled Appel an imagineering genius. “Since Roman times, topiary has always been for the elite,” Berker says. “Then Jeff comes along and puts it in gas stations. He’s a visionary, like Disney.”

Appel’s father Ron, with whom he owns 80 gas stations, chose other words to describe his son at the time. Still smarting over the cost of the winged horse, Appel says his father went through the roof when he saw Berker’s dolphins shooting out of the grass strips at their Mobil station at Jefferson Boulevard and Centinela Avenue. “He told me a gas station was not a zoo,” Appel the younger recalls, “and I’d wasted our money.”

Ron Appel now knows just how lucrative well-placed animal statuary can be. The Appels’ La Palma station, which features topiary horses and giraffes and porpoises jumping through rings of bougainvillea fire, has become one of the highest-volume franchises in California, according to Mobil spokesman Keith Guilbault.

On a recent Saturday, Naja Abinader, one of Appel’s competitors, stands in her Shell station at Jefferson and Centinela, watching the mayhem at Appel’s station across the way, jammed with honking cars and children running around the dolphins. “I don’t see what’s so good about those dolphins,” she sniffs. “I change my flowers four times a year, but those dolphins never change. They don’t even bloom.”

Given the cancer-from-fumes warnings posted on all of the pumps, it’s surprising anything, let alone New Zealand flax, could ever sprout in a gas station. But according to Philip Sniderman, Appel’s landscape architect, many plants actually thrive under 24-hour fluorescents. Appel swears the queen palms grew like crazy after one of his tanks sprang a leak. “You never know,” he says. “Palm trees might need gasoline.”

Theft is perhaps a greater hazard than the stink of petrol. “So far, I’ve had one of my deer and a rabbit stolen,” Appel says. “And a bunch of my flowers. They’ve even taken my grass.” Station supervisor August Prepuse remarks: “Once a yellow Toyota pulled out a palm and drove off.”

So what causes a gas station owner like Appel to leave a legacy of rams and wisteria while others begrudge a few petunias? The former UCLA psychology major thinks a moment, then shouts over the din of construction: “I just hate getting gas.”