The Wright stuff for classic car lovers

Today is the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth, arguably the greatest American architect ever. While famous for such remarkable buildings as Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum (the latter’s internal spiraling ramps were inspired by an earlier proposed automobile project of his) he was also a car buff, owning more than 80 vehicles over his lifetime.

His passions intersected when designing automobile service stations and a new-car showroom. Wright felt that filling stations, two of which were eventually built, should be as comfortable as homes. He referred to them as “ornament[s] to the pavement.” Interestingly, both are located near major shipping points (Duluth and Buffalo) on the Great Lakes, commissioned by oilmen for whom the architect had designed homes. They are similar in style, but their paths to construction are unique.

The first station was built in Cloquet, Minn., in 1958, about 20 miles west of Duluth. Originally built for oil company owner Ray Lindholm, the station still stands at the intersection of Route 33 and Cloquet Avenue. It represented some of Wright’s ideas for a city of the future called Broadacre City. While that city was never built, this small piece of it is still used for its intended purpose by local company Best Service.

Due to contemporary safety rules, the Cloquet station lacks overhead fuel tanks like Wright’s station in Buffalo, NY. But his signature cantilevered roof identifies it unmistakably as a Wright-designed structure, along with the second-floor customer observation lounge and the skylight-illuminated service bays.

Although designed in 1927, Wright’s second station—the one in Buffalo—wasn’t built for almost a century. Due to its strategic shipping position on Lake Erie, in the 1920s Buffalo was one of the wealthiest cities in the country and Wright worked for several area benefactors. Local tycoons Darwin Martin and William Heath owned a gasoline franchise and Wright had already designed homes for them. They hired him again to design a service station for the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cherry Streets.

The plans weren’t realized until 2014, when it had its grand opening inside the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, complete with the second-floor customer’s “observation room,” overhead gravity fed fuel tanks, and extensive copper roof. The museum is unique among its peers for having a newly constructed service station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright contained within its walls.

Museum founder Jim Sandoro was the driving force behind the Wright service station’s construction. He recalls the long road to building it: “In the early 1970s I was based in Arizona as a part owner of Auctions America. One day I rode my bike to Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home, and asked what they had in their archives about Buffalo. That’s when I saw a little sketch of a gas station.”

Sandoro never forgot the little sketch. By 2001 he had opened the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum (Pierce-Arrows were built in Buffalo) and thought it would be a neat idea to build Wright’s gas station inside it. Along with local architect Patrick Mahoney, he went back to Taliesin West to seek out the drawings he remembered from 30 years earlier.

Wearing gloves and masks to protect the fragile records, the treasure hunters searched through thousands of drawings with no luck. But just before leaving for their flight home, they discovered a drawing marked “Cherry Street.” Eureka! The plans specified a location that, coincidentally, was only a few blocks from the museum.

After securing Wright’s drawings, the station was constructed with a heavy dose of volunteer labor and materials. Long-time Buffalo resident Sandoro is proud to say that it is “Buffalo built.” It’s been a big draw for the museum, attracting architectural, motoring, and petroliana fans alike.

Unfortunately, Wright’s remaining auto-themed building didn’t survive a recent date with the wrecking ball. His 1954 design for a new car showroom was built on New York’s swanky Park Avenue. Much like the Guggenheim Museum that was built five years later, the interior was characterized by sloping ramps, though in this case they were used to display the latest shiny automobiles. Over the years, the building was primarily used to show off Mercedes-Benzes but in 2013, despite its stellar lineage, the interior was demolished.

For a look at his driving style, two of Wright’s former vehicles are on display at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Ind. Painted in Wright’s signature Cherokee Red are his 1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet and a diminutive 1952 Crosley.

Wright also dabbled with automotive designs himself. Having forged the use of a cantilever roof on buildings, he played with the concept of cantilevering a car’s roof. Unfortunately, none of these designs made it into production.

To celebrate the sesquicentennial of Wright’s birthday, the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum is holding special events from June 8th through June 11th, including rare tours inside the service station.

Visitor information:
Wright service station in Cloquet: 202 Cloquet Avenue, Cloquet, MN 55720.

Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum: 263 Michigan Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14203. http://www.pierce-arrow.com/

Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum: 1600 S. Wayne Street, Auburn, IN 46706. http://www.automobilemuseum.org/

Michael Milne is the author of the Roadster Guide to America’s Classic Car Museums & Attractions.