Preservation Durham: Places in Peril

Historic gas stations
Jun. 08, 2013 @ 12:05 PM

Why they’re  important

Gas stations represent some of Durham’s most endangered but least recognized historic structures. 

Pre-war gas stations (built prior to 1945) were typically made of brick.  Key examples include stations in East Durham on the corner of Guthrie Street and Angier Avenue and another further east on 2620 Angier, near Hoover Road.  Both of these stations are owned by M. M. Fowler (who sold the station that was recently remodeled as Geer Street Garden).

Post-war gas stations (built after 1945) were often built of steel and glass, reflecting a style that can best be described as mid-century commercial vernacular.  The most distinctive features of these gas stations are their long, metal triangular canopies that evoke the tailfins of space-age automobile design of the 1950s and 1960s.  These are possibly the most endangered stations today.  As recently as March 2013, a fine example of this style was demolished on West Chapel Hill Street near Gregson Street. 

A third type of gas station considered to be historically valuable is old country stores. A prime example is the Catsburg General Store, an unusual prewar station at the crossroads of Old Oxford Highway and Hamlin Road, a striking building with red wooden clapboard siding.  Often these structures contained important community amenities, such as markets and post offices, all under one roof.

Why they’re imperiled

Several of the most architecturally valuable gas stations in Durham stand abandoned and enjoy little to no attention from preservationists, much less from the general public.  They are among the most important architectural expressions of American automobile and consumer culture in Durham, and, next to the ubiquitous modern station, these historic ones are easy to pass by unnoticed.

What’s Needed

Preservation Durham should raise awareness of the architectural and historical merits of these distinctive gas stations through Places in Peril and other public statements. The most powerful argument for preserving gas stations is to renovate them for new retail and offices.  Successful renovations of gas stations in Durham include Mad Hatter Bake Shop, Geer Street Garden and Cocoa Cinnamon.  Preservation Durham should attempt to publicize the rich possibilities for reusing these old structures, perhaps pairing commercial buyers with the owners of empty stations.