Building gas stations with flair

Remember when gas stations were cool?

In the decades after World War II, gas was cheap and operators competed on service. Every time a car rolled in, a bell would ring and uniformed pump jockeys dashed out to fill the tank, wash the windshield and check the oil level. Sagging tires got a whoosh of air.

Station owners made profits from car repairs performed in their garages and especially from selling oil, which vehicles burned quickly by today’s standards.

Some owners tried to catch customers’ eyes with futuristic-looking designs for their buildings like the Googie-style Unocal station in Beverly Hills from 1965 with a swooping white roof. Now United Oil Co., a family-run oil company in Carson, is trying again to build business with arresting looks.

On a recent overcast afternoon at a busy intersection near Ladera Heights, United Oil executive Jeff Appel watched cars stream into one of the most provocative-looking gas stations in the region. First conceived by a prominent architect drawing on a napkin, the station design is a combination of modernism and Googie, the playful futuristic style popular in Southern California in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“The typical gas station is struggling right now,” Appel said, with sales of gasoline down as much as 25% from pre-recession 2007, according to industry statistics. “It’s been a very tough business for the past few years.”

His United Oil station at Slauson and La Brea avenues, though, sells about 15,000 gallons of gas a day, he said, well above the average of less than 4,000 gallons. The station is one of four at the intersection, but some customers such as Alexis Jade Hunter make a point of stopping in.

“I prefer this one,” said Hunter as she filled her mature Mercedes-Benz. “I like the ambience. If I have to twist a U-turn, I’ll do that. I just enjoy it.”

Like other customers, she also pays close attention to prices.

Appel acknowledges United Oil competes on costs, but he believes his Slauson station and others that stand out visually have an edge with customers. They may not notice, for instance, expensive concrete made black with iron particles, but Appel thinks such details create a mood.

“People enjoy the Grove,” he said, referring to the upscale Los Angeles mall that cost more than most other shopping centers to build. “They want to be in a place they feel special. It’s all about the feel.”

Gas stations owned by United Oil — many of them operated under other brand names, such as Shell and 76 — frequently have features that set them apart from typical petrol purveyors: tile roofs, topiary, fountains and drought-resistant gardens.

The canopy over a Chevron station in Cerritos is lighted with custom see-through solar panels. Two 25-foot walls of flowing water cool a United Oil brand station in Carson.

But most of all, there are the unapologetically fanciful murals. Leaping dolphins, flying horses, soaring eagles beneath majestic clouds, hot-air balloons and giant-size candy can be found hand-painted on the ceilings and walls of United Oil stations.

Inside a western-themed Exxon station in Norco is a trompe l’oeil of a mine shaft so convincing that tourists pose for pictures in front of it, said Jon Enache, head of gas station design and construction for United Oil.

Enache, 72, designs by hand instead of computer and makes a point of mixing up his themes.

“I never repeat,” he said. “Everything I do, I do different.”

He draws inspiration from his favorite architect, Antoni Gaudi, whose voluptuous designs are a source of pride in Gaudi’s native Spain. “I take some ideas from Gaudi, putting together the spiritual and the natural.”

The design for the futuristic Slauson Avenue station, in contrast, was first sketched on a paper napkin for United Oil by the late Los Angeles architect Stephen Kanner, who was known for his playful yet functional modern designs. Kanner turned to Googie because an adjacent hotel is in that style, as was the nearby Wich Stand, a 1950s coffee shop turned health food eatery, said architect Damian LeMons of Kanner Architects.

LeMons oversaw the gas station project and liked working with United Oil in part because Secretary-Treasurer Appel was willing to keep writing checks to achieve their mutual vision — the lighting on the circular canopy alone cost half a million dollars.

“Sometimes we spend so much money that I am embarrassed,” Appel said.

The Slauson station cost about $8 million. That’s far above the industry norm of about $2.2 million, not including the cost of land.

But, Appel said, “I have no regrets. I couldn’t show you on a graph where it makes sense, but it works for us.”

Investing in one-of-a-kind gas stations pays off on multiple levels, by Appel’s reckoning. They set themselves apart from the competition, enticing customers and instilling pride in the staff, he said.

Appel, 52, took notice about 25 years ago when the company started by his grandfather spruced up an old gas station it owned in Redondo Beach with paint and landscaping. Business immediately improved.

“That was kind of an ‘aha’ moment,” Appel said. A few years later United Oil razed an old station in Corona del Mar and built a new one sporting topiary and a mural. The pattern was set.

United Oil now operates 127 gas stations in Southern California, and nearly 80% of them are “really nice or better,” he said. Upgrades are being planned for five stations in need, and Appel is searching for other means to tickle customers’ fancy.

“We’re branching off into custom-made ice cream and bakeries with baked-on-site cookies,” he said.

Gas stations in general have changed little since they were first built about a century ago, said William R. Brice, editor of the annual journal “Oil-Industry History.” Using the same design over and over made economic sense.

But the economics of running a station have changed with the arrival of self-serve pumps and the departure of mechanics as cars grew too complicated and specialized to be tinkered with en masse. With major oil companies nearly out of the business of running gas stations, small-business owners must pick up the costs for mandatory environmental protection upgrades, pumps that scan credit cards and credit card fees to banks.

“The average owner can’t afford to reinvest,” said Ron Reger, director of real estate for Propel Fuels. And now they are facing more competition from heavyweight discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Kroger Co.'s Food 4 Less chain.

“About 20% of gas stations need to close,” Reger said. “You’re going to see fewer and fewer gas stations.”

If gas stations are doing well, however, “investors are chasing them,” said real estate broker Scott Kaplan of CBRE Group Inc.

Locations of stations that do go under may be converted to other uses, such as restaurants or banks, Kaplan said. Fear of contamination from leaky underground fuel tanks that troubled such sites in years past has been mostly eliminated by stricter government tank standards, he said.