Roadside artifact in downtown Seattle now up for sale
Update, July 9, 2021:
In the past few days, a tiny triangle of land along Denny Way and an odd little brick building — which KIRO Radio listeners learned last week was once home to a grand and glorious 1930s gas station — has been put on the market. A firm called Westlake Associates issued a flyer earlier this week, though as of Friday morning, the 0.12 acre parcel is not yet listed on the company’s website.
Late Thursday, KIRO Radio reached out to the broker listed on the flyer to find out more; so far, there has been no response. The King County Assessor values the property around $3 million, but Westlake Associates lists the price as “negotiable.” Assuming the property would be sold for redevelopment, it appears that a new structure there could be between 240 feet and 440 feet tall.
Original story, published June 30, 2021:
Summer road trip season is here, and with the pandemic winding down, the desire to get out on the highway and cover some ground feels even more intense than ever. It’s also the 65th anniversary this week of Congress passing — and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signing — the legislation that created the Interstate Highway System back in 1956.
But a forgotten roadside landmark in Seattle is from a slightly earlier “Golden Age of Highway Travel” in the 1930s. Though it was the years of the Great Depression, it was also an era of great American roadways, and great American roadside architecture.
This odd little structure is in what’s now a parking lot along Denny Way at 7th Avenue and Dexter. This is just east of where the old Elephant Car Wash sign stood until last year. This roadside artifact is a tiny two-story octagonal kiosk made of brick. It looks a bit like a sawed-off silo, and it still has signs on it from the business most recently housed there: a skateboard shop.
However, by examining old photos from the Seattle Municipal Archives, and with some help from Washington’s State Architectural Historian Michael Houser, it becomes clear that the strange little building was once a pretty amazing little gas station.
This “BEACON” gas station opened officially on May 17, 1933, which was also the same day that the new and improved Aurora Avenue opened – “from Denny Way over the George Washington Memorial Bridge to its North End terminus,” according to a newspaper account from the time, with that “North End terminus” considered the city boundary in those days, or 85th Street.
The George Washington Memorial Bridge – better known as the Aurora Bridge – had opened to traffic a year earlier, but completion of the stretch of roadway between Denny Way and the south end of the span was a key link in the route.
In 1933 – nearly two decades before the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel would radically change the layout of downtown Seattle and the old route of the major highway through town – the short diagonal stretch of 7th Avenue, which runs along the west side of the triangle-shaped lot, was actually US Highway 99, the major north-south route between the Mexican border and the Canadian border. Thus, this odd little triangle, which now feels like a bit of an isolated wasteland, was actually a brilliant place to open a gas station in 1933.
And this wasn’t just any old gas station. Atop the octagonal kiosk was a giant rotating neon sign – narrow and shaped like a three-sided pillar, probably 20 feet tall – that spun at a rate of three times per minute. According to newspaper accounts, the sign and building exterior were festooned with 300 feet of neon tubing. And though the station was called “BEACON,” the words spelled out vertically on the sides of the sign were “SIGNAL,” “MARINE,” and “UNION 76.”
These were the three separate brands of gasoline that were dispensed from a total of nine pumps. Along with the kiosk, the pumps and the spaces in between the three pump islands also included a large canopy. Within a few years, the “MARINE” and “UNION 76” brands were gone from 7th and Denny, and the station offered only SIGNAL brand gas.
The SIGNAL brand had come to Seattle in the spring of 1933, just in time for the opening of the new station, as well as some other Puget Sound locations. The brand had been launched in California in 1920s, and then made a big splash on the West Coast in 1933 as the company expanded into Oregon and Washington and sponsored the Tarzan radio program. The radio show, featuring Tarzan, Jane, and other characters made famous by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books and films, was aimed squarely at kids. In Seattle, it was heard three times a week – Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:15 p.m. on KJR.
The coordinated campaign of newspaper ads for SIGNAL from 1933 are fairly over the top. They claim that SIGNAL gas “Gives the Power of Tarzan,” and they show the loin-cloth clad hero wrestling with a crocodile or, in one version, about to stab a tiger with a dagger.
Those newspaper ads – along with related billboards and radio spots – are reminders of gasoline’s dirty little secret: It’s all the same, it all comes from the same refineries, and no gas gives you better mileage or is better for your Terraplane or Hupmobile. That’s why the marketers had to go out of their way to convince consumers to choose their product over other brands for other, perhaps slightly less rational, reasons.
By sponsoring the Tarzan radio show – and creating the “Signal Tarzan Club” aimed at young boys and girls – the oil company motivated kids to pester mom and dad about which gas station to visit and which gas to buy. SIGNAL did this, but so did other oil companies, including Richfield – whose kid-focused “Jimmie Allen Flying Club” was actually based in a building near Lake Union in Seattle in the 1930s.
It’s the SIGNAL building that pretty much amounts to all that remains of the brand in Seattle these days, which could be a testament to its brick construction or perhaps to its original design.
And just who did design the octagonal kiosk?
With help from the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, copies of old permits and blueprints reveal that the gas station was designed by a Seattle architect named George Wellington Stoddard.
The name Stoddard isn’t as recognizable as other 20th century Seattle architects, such as Paul Thiry or Victor Steinbrueck. But a perusal of Stoddard’s biography on the website of the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation does reveal a number of recognizable buildings he designed, including the south grandstand at Husky Stadium (that’s NOT the one that collapsed); the old Aqua Theatre at Green Lake, part of which is still standing; and the beleaguered and under-appreciated Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center.
Why doesn’t George Wellington Stoddard get more credit for the lasting work he did around here? The state’s architectural historian Michael Houser says there are several reasons.
“I think he’s really one of the top-10 underappreciated sort of guys that are the players, but I mean, he did stuff all over the state and certainly had a very long and prolific career,” Houser told KIRO Radio. “He definitely was a player during the [early to mid 20th century], and just not as well noted because nobody’s really studied him in that much depth or he didn’t do grand sort of buildings.”
“He did a lot of residential properties and he did a lot of schools and smaller structures,” he continued, “and pretty cool little commercial buildings here and there,” including the SIGNAL station.
It wasn’t just in Seattle where SIGNAL was well known for building visually striking stations. There’s still an old SIGNAL station standing in Portland’s St. John neighborhood that dates to 1939. In the early 2000s, the building – including its neon sign and other architectural neon tubing – was restored, and it’s been operating as Signal Station Pizza since 2006.
While it might not become a pizza place, chances are the old SIGNAL gas station on Denny Way probably won’t be around much longer in any shape or form. The private owner couldn’t be reached, but the King County Assessor’s Office website says the land is worth about $2.8 million, which means a parking lot or a skateboard shop probably don’t pencil out, either.
In the meantime, some of the original hardware and gas station fittings – including one of the original three pump islands and various metal bits – appear to still be in place.
Architect George Wellington Stoddard passed away in 1967, but it’s difficult to determine when the property ceased serving as a gas station, though it appears that the SIGNAL brand went away sometime around 1960. The canopy and pumps were removed sometime after that, but a check with the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) on the status of the underground gasoline storage tanks was inconclusive.
In an email, Cheryl Ann Bishop of DOE wrote, “It’s possible that the tanks were gone long before [we] started tracking sites. Underground storage tanks (UST) sites essentially had two options when the UST program started in 1988, 1) register tanks with the state and become part of the UST regulated community or 2) close the site (stop using the tanks).”
“Registering them wasn’t required, which means we wouldn’t have records of them,” Bishop continued. “In some cases, the property was redeveloped years later and the tank was reported to [the Department of] Ecology because of contamination found during the redevelopment, but that’s not the case here.”
“The short answer is we don’t know, and the only way to find out would be looking underground at the site,” she concluded.
According to City of Seattle records, the property owner terminated the gas station usage permit in 1987, timing which might suggest this step was taken perhaps to do exactly what Cheryl Ann Bishop of DOE described.
As for the Elephant Car Wash sign that stood across from the old SIGNAL, MOHAI says restoration work is underway.
“The Elephant Car Wash sign is still at Western Neon being restored and we are exploring ideas for display at some point,” wrote Kristin Halunen, director of collections resources for the museum, in an email. “No timeline as yet, and they have to replace some of the neon, address the rust and stabilization issues, and touch up the paint.”
Who knows, when those display ideas for the neon car wash sign are tossed around in the backrooms at MOHAI, perhaps they’ll be able to incorporate an old SIGNAL ad showing Tarzan wrestling an elephant.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.