Buffalo museum builds long-lost Frank Lloyd Wright gas station

BUFFALO, New York Thu Oct 20, 2011 11:17am EDT

A visitor watches an archive television interview with U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Vincent West

A visitor watches an archive television interview with U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao October 21, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent West

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BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - Frank Lloyd Wright's long-envisioned gas station of the future will finally open next year in Buffalo, New York -- some 80 years after the project was first approved.

Wright's early notion that America would need gas stations, and lots of them, proved true. But his plans to create a network of standardized filling stations never got off the ground, said James Sandoro, founder of the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow Museum.

The museum is building the filling station, with above-ground tanks and a pitched copper roof, as a showpiece exactly as Wright drew it up.

The plans for the Buffalo station were only recently discovered among letters between Wright and a prominent Buffalo businessman named Darwin Martin, for whom Wright built two private homes in the area, Sandoro said.

"It's exciting. It's not every day that you discover an unbuilt commission by Frank Lloyd Wright that was previously unknown," said architect Patrick Mahoney, who has been hired to carry out the $15 million project.

Visitors won't be able to fill up there, however. The station will be housed inside a 40,000-square-foot atrium and visible through glass walls.

Modern-day building codes would not allow features such as the overhead fuel storage tanks in a working service station, Sandoro said.

That, the architect said, can be daunting.

"We're locked in a moment in time. You can't change the design," he said. "You have to make it work."

Wright entitled his drawings "Buffalo Filling Station" in 1927, ahead of the post-war U.S. auto boom, as the nation's suburbs were beginning to expand.

In the decades since, just one similar project was completed, in Cloquet, Minnesota, just prior to Wright's death in 1959 at age 91.

SINGULAR VISION

Mahoney also said some people do not believe anyone can replicate Wright's vision.

"At any moment in time, his ideas about something were evolving. The collaboration was a big part of the construction process," he said.

The project is due to be complete in June, joining the myriad artifacts and dozens of vintage cars on display at the Pierce Arrow museum.

Buffalo was home to two of the world's most renowned luxury car companies in the early 20th century -- Pierce Arrow and E.R. Thomas. Between the two companies, they invented windshield wipers, power steering, inset headlights and other key innovations.

Also on display is a car made by the short-lived Playboy car company, which started after World War II, making and selling cars for less than $1,000 for returning soldiers.

It also marketed the first removable hard-top convertible.

The company only manufactured about 97 cars before going out of business. Its greatest contribution may have been inspiring the name of Playboy Magazine in the 1950s.

The city of Buffalo maintains close connections to Wright, as home to three of his most lucrative clients, all executives with the Larkin Co., a pioneering mail order business.

Wright built Larkin's administration building and a sprawling home for Martin, its chief executive, which attracts visitors from around the world.

The home is considered the city's most significant example of Wright's design, out of about 13 other structures Wright built in the area, Mahoney said.

But demolition of Larkin's offices by the city in 1950 is considered by some, including Mahoney, to be a devastating case of architectural destruction.

"A lot of people consider Wright the greatest artist the United States ever produced," Mahoney said. "In some ways, he was able to envision the future in a building better than anyone else."

Sandoro said the museum purchased Wright's two-story San Francisco office, which is now stored in pieces in 30 large crates. No decision has been made about when or where the building may be reassembled, he said.

More than 400 structures Wright built across the country still stand. "His ideas went far beyond just the buildings," Mahoney said.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)

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