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Historian: Station eligible for historic register

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Ann Fiore
November 21, 2007
— Most folks don’t look to gas stations for a source of architectural inspiration.

Jim Draeger isn’t like most folks.


A historian by trade, he’s got a thing for old gas stations. And he’s got a good feeling about that old white gas station-turned-repair-shop at 101 N. Franklin St. in Janesville—the one the city might tear down.


“They are eminently reusable buildings,” said Draeger, an architectural historian at the Wisconsin Historical Society. “It’s just that people don’t think to reuse them.”


The old gas station has pumped up local preservationists, who appeared at a city council meeting last week to protest city plans to buy the property and raze it for green space.


Ultimately, the council decided the city should buy the property, but it postponed a decision to demolish the building.


As it turns out, the North Franklin Street gas station is included in a new book, “Fill ’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations,” written by Draeger and historical researcher Mark Speltz. It’s set for publication next August.


The book is the companion of a Wisconsin Public Television documentary of the same name, which will be re-broadcast at 6:30 p.m. Friday.


Nearly 70 Wisconsin gas stations are listed on local, state and national registers of historic places. The Janesville building isn’t listed but is eligible for the national register, Draeger said.


“There’s plenty of precedent for buildings like that to be listed on the national register,” he said.


In Draeger’s view, gas stations aren’t ordinary buildings. They are cultural landmarks that show how we evolved into a car-dependent society.


Gas stations were the first structures with drive-in features for cars, Draeger said. They also pioneered the modern commercial strip by bringing commercial development, usually clustered downtown, into residential neighborhoods.


But the preservation issue raises a question: How many old buildings should a city save?


Last week, City Manager Steve Sheiffer said he doesn’t see a potential reuse for the gas station. The building sits next to the new $5 million police station, which was designed to expand to that property.


Janesville has several older, vacant buildings that no one has bought, Sheiffer told the council. Preserving them takes money.


“We don’t even have money for the Tallman House,” Sheiffer said.


Draeger argues that demolishing historical buildings is “short-sighted.” Almost all downtown demolitions turn properties into green space or parking lots, taking them off the tax rolls, he said.


Draeger said rehabilitation tax credits and brownfield grants have helped fund preservation efforts in other cities.


Kenosha, for example, turned an old gas station into a floral shop. A Cedarburg gas station became a jewelry store, and a Milwaukee gas station in the Sherman Park neighborhood now serves coffee under the name Sherman Perk.


“A healthy city is one where they knit back the fabric together, where they nurse back those buildings that are sick,” he said.


Five facts about the gas station
Here’s what Jim Draeger, an architectural historian for the Wisconsin Historical Society, knows about the old gas station at 101 N. Franklin St.:

-- It was built in 1930 as a Standard Oil station.


-- Architecturally, it has a southwestern design—tile roof, stucco walls—that was popular among earlier gas stations. The design aimed to make people think of Texas oil fields.


-- It was no ordinary gas station, but rather a “super service station” built to sell gas, tires and batteries and offer repair service. That was a new concept for gas stations, which faced stiff competition for business during the Depression.


-- It cost $12,000 to build, about twice what an average home cost.


-- It probably was painted white when it was built. Most gas stations were white because that color said “We’re clean” to people, Draeger said. The color white also made the building stand out.



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