Ghosts of gas stations past
By SHARON L. BOND, Neighborhood Times Business Editor
PINELLAS PARK -- Even without the brightly colored trademark, the building at 5290 Park Blvd. has the look of a Shell service station, with the eaves reaching down past the walls from the roof.
But for the past 11 years, the former filling station has been the Carpet Barn.
In St. Petersburg, the McLeod Brothers gas station was open for business in 1929 at 3701 Fifth Ave. N. Now Eastside Westside Flower Co. has the small building, whose canopy sweeps out from the front, forming the cover that probably most quickly identifies former gas stations.
Just outside Seminole on Seminole Boulevard N, the new facade at Flowerama of America florist and gift shop successfully hides traces of the former service station. But take one of the parking spaces on the north side, and there are the doors to the women's and men's rooms, those outside relief spots sought out on driving vacations before interstates and fast-food restaurants.
Southern Pinellas County has a number of former gasoline stations that have been reborn as other businesses. Many of them are small and either were sold or closed down when the trend shifted to what is today's typical service station: a convenience store with multiple, mostly self-service gasoline pumps and the means to pay for the gas at the pump.
"The oil companies probably decided that they could make more money by either selling the property or by converting them to C (convenience) stores," said Caroline Spencer, owner of Wilsey Auto Service Inc. in St. Petersburg.
Wilsey does auto repair and maintenance, but when Spencer's family bought the business, it had gasoline pumps. Spencer said it was too hard to keep an employee just to pump gas. When she found herself out there filling cars, she decided the pumps had to go.
"We didn't make very much money on gas. You have to do a large volume to make money on gas. The gas companies found out they could make more money by turning themselves into convenience stores," Spencer said.
As the change occurred, entrepreneurs moved into gas stations.
"Lots of times the value is real low because they do have environmental issues," said Bob Jeffrey, St. Petersburg's manager of urban design and historic preservation.
Jeffrey said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency makes the rules for how ground once devoted to gasoline tanks is cleaned up. Because of the required cleanup, it can be hard to get a mortgage for a former gas station. So many go for low cash amounts or owners offer financing, Jeffrey said.
"Because of that, you get a lot of entrepreneurs, coffeehouses and things like that. That is about the right amount of space," Jeffrey said.
Sushi Rock Grill is remodeling a former gasoline station at 1163 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N in St. Petersburg. That space also has held a cafe and plant nursery and was a filling station as far back as 1938.
The restaurant should open in early May, said Valarie Nussbaum, one of the partners.
"We liked the neighborhood/community aspect" of the site, she said.
The Shell station on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park already had been converted to a store when N. Atari bought it for the Carpet Barn.
"What attracted me was the location," said Atari. "All gas stations are on corners. This has a concrete roof and wall." And on its south side are the restrooms.
In the three garage bays where vehicles should sit hoisted on lifts, rolls of carpet are stacked. Area rugs hang from the ceiling. Atari thinks it has been at least 25 years since the building was a filling station. The pumps already had been removed when he bought the building. He took out the lifts in the garage, cleaned the area and covered parts of the floor that needed it.
"It's like any other office, just smaller," Atari said.
But the interior still is marked off in a familiar gas station floor plan: front office where customers came in to pay for their gasoline and maybe buy a soft drink and snack, a back office for the owner or bookkeeper, and a big area to the side of the main office divided into bays for small repair and maintenance jobs.
It is a floor plan altered only slightly at Eastside Westside Flower Co. on Fifth Avenue N in St. Petersburg. In the time between when the pumps dispensed gasoline and Tom Henninger began selling flowers there in 1992, the building was a fuel oil heating and air-conditioning business, used furniture store, part of a pet grooming shop and a reptile shop, he said. At least seven operators ran it as either a filling station or auto service shop in its early years.
At Flowerama just outside Seminole, the interior bears little hint of its former incarnation. Manager Dennis Copsey said that at the front of the shop where double entrance doors have been installed, there remains evidence of the three bay openings "where cars would have come in to be fixed."
Henninger is quite happy in the old filling station as the home of Eastside Westside Flower Co. He has installed stereo, television and some wicker furniture. For company, he keeps six to eight birds with him, a pair of which are bright red lorikeets. He carves wind chimes and picture frames out of bamboo.
"I don't have the overhead of an expensive shop," he said. "I'm trying to obscure the line between work and pleasure."
Small service stations were big business in St. Petersburg in the middle of the last century, said Jeffrey.
"At one point, there were just tons of gas stations out there," he said referring to Central Avenue. "That's where all the traffic was. In the '40s and '50s, there were close to 20 gas stations between the interstate (where it would later be located near 22nd Street) and 34th Street on Central Avenue."
These stations might have a single mechanic and someone to pump gas. Minor repairs were done. From a design perspective, Jeffrey said they changed from a residential look such as a Tudor style to a more streamlined look to today's "utilitarian, well-lighted" place where money is made off the conveniences sold.
Ferg's, the sports bar at 1320 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg, began as a small service station in the 1920s, according to owner Mark Ferguson. He said it was a Sunoco station. At some point in the 1970s, it no longer was used as a gas station. He bought the site in 1991 to use as a restaurant/sports bar, which opened in 1992.
-- Times researchers Mary Mellstrom and Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.
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