The Gas Station That Frank Lloyd Wright Built

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The station has all the hallmarks of a Wright design, including what looks like an unsupported roof, made of copper, no less. (Photo: Pierce-Arrow Transportation Museum).

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright is best known for building a ... filling station? Not exactly.

His most famous building is probably Fallingwater, a cantilevered home 90 minutes outside Pittsburgh that appears unsupported and stretches out over a 30-foot waterfall. About 4.5 million people have visited it.

But Wright did indeed design a gas station, in 1927, though plans for it fell through. But now the vividly modern station has been built from the old plans, and it’s a resplendent exhibit at the Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum in Buffalo. The high-end cars were built there and, yes, that’s a Pierce-Arrow pulled up to the gravity-feed pumps in the photo.

According to Jim Sandoro, the Buffalo native who built the museum’s collection of 85 cars and a ton of automobilia from his own collection — featuring cars built in Western New York, such as the Thomas Flyer, the Automatic Electric and the Playboy. He’s also got examples of just about everything built by Pierce-Arrow, including bicycles, motorcycles, buses, bird cages and ice boxes. The company died in 1938, a victim of the Depression and lingering debt from building trucks for World War I, Sandoro says.

frank lloyd wright filling station with pierce arrow
The station is strikingly modern, and would have made quite a splash in 1927. In the foreground are the gravity feed hoses. (Photo: Pierce-Arrow Transportation Museum)

“In 1927, Frank Lloyd Wright was in financial trouble,” Sandoro relates. “His studio had closed and he was in the midst of a nasty divorce. His friend Darwin D. Martin stepped in. A Buffalo industrialist, mail order pioneer, and patron of Wright’s (the Martin house, built between 1902 and 1907, is another Wright landmark), Martin offered to set up a corporation for Wright, and sell original designs.

The first of these was to be “a filling station for the 1920s,” and what a concept it was! It’s a two-story building with the gas tanks in the eaves to support a gravity feed. That sounds like a fire hazard to me, but Wright wasn't known for the practicality of his designs. There’s a copper roof, a second-story observation room with a fireplace for waiting patrons, and a pair of 45-foot poles that Wright called “totems.”

The Thomas Flyer, the 1908 New York to Paris race car winner
Jim Sandoro worked on the restoration of this famous Buffalo-built Thomas Flyer, the 1908 New York to Paris race winner, for casino magnate Bill Harrah. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The just-opened station is housed in a glass atrium at the museum, and Sandoro says it cost $1 million to build (with local businesses chipping in). The high cost of building the station plans explains why it never went into production — it was $3,500, a prohibitive sum, for plans and building in 1927.

The sad part of this story is that Darwin Martin, once a very rich man, lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. When Wright’s autobiography came out in 1932, Martin was too impoverished to buy a $6 copy, so Wright gave him one of his personal copies. But the $70,000 Wright had loaned Martin was never repaid.