Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
What do Southtown eatery Bliss, lunchtime favorite The Station Cafe in King William, and the carefully curated offerings at Alamo Heights' sloan/hall have in common?
All three are housed in historic gas stations.
Bliss consistently ranks as one of the best restaurants in the city. The redesign of the 1929 Humble Oil gas station blends historic with modern, including exposed brick, pine wood ceiling structures, and a wall of glass and galvanized metal panels. Its dining room seats 52, the chef’s table in the kitchen 10, its private event space 30 guests, and outdoor dining on the back patio is available when the weather allows.
The Station Cafe, located on South St. Mary's and King William streets across from the San Antonio Conservation Society's office, at any given lunchtime is filled to the brink with diners jonesing for signature spicy roast beef sandwiches. Attached to the restaurant is The Filling Station Tap Room, a tiny beer joint specializing in craft beers. Covered patio seating out front shows the tap room's roots as a historic Texaco gas station.
What was once a Magnolia gas station at the corner of Austin Highway and Broadway Street is now home to high-end retailer sloan/hall. The porte cochère where customers once pulled up and pumped gas is now enclosed in glass, showcasing high-end retail items including women's clothing, furniture, jewelry, and books. Many of the gas stations features remain, most notably the pegasus that sits atop the building.
Another historic gas station on St. Mary’s Street just north of downtown will soon be converted into a restaurant, with plans for an outdoor seating area and a drive-thru lane.
As these examples – and there are many more in the city – illustrate that historic gas stations are adaptive reuse gold. But in the externalized world of real estate value, location is key, which brings us to the one of the city’s newer trails along the San Pedro and Apache creeks.
The trail was completed in 2016 and connects to the Mission Reach trail that runs through the World Heritage area.
At the trailhead near Nogalitos Street sits a 1936 Pure Oil gas station, which was functional through the 1960s, then became a tire repair facility, and finally was used as an auto repair shop in the 1990s.
Pure Oil was a San Antonio company that adopted the half-timbered Tudor Revival style of architecture for its stations, which can be found in a dozen states. The only one left in San Antonio features steeply pitched roofs on both the “house” and “canopy,” the part of the building that extends perpendicularly to the roof and originally shielded refueling cars from the elements.
Members of the Conservation Society have surveyed more than 1,500 gas stations within San Antonio's city limits over the years. We surveyed the Pure Oil station in 1983 and proposed it as one of 30 to be designated as city landmarks last year. Having looked at 1,500 stations, I can tell you with confidence that the Tudor Revival style is unusual, and this station is quite intact.
But then the station was quietly pulled from the designation list at the behest of its out-of-town owner, an elderly woman whose father built the station. The Conservation Society filed a Request for Review of Significance, which the Historic and Design Review Commission agreed to.
We also learned that the little gem of a gas station only occupies about one-eighth of the original land it sits on. The Office of Historic Preservation ruled that only the gas station had historic significance, so the other buildings on site would not need to be restored and could potentially be razed.
The owner hired experienced real estate attorneys who aim to prevent designation. Why? Because the land would be worth more if the building were demolished? That argument doesn’t hold up too well in this town; gas stations are constantly turned into successful businesses. Señor Veggie in Southtown, Deco Pizzeria in the Deco District, and Tycoon Flats on North St. Mary's Street are but a few examples throughout the city.
The Conservation Society met with the owners attorneys and City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, whose District 5 is home to the Pure Oil station, moments before the item came up for consideration at City Council in mid-January. All parties agreed to put designation on hold for 60 days.
While it remains unclear whether the owner wishes to sell the property, her attorneys have told the Conservation Society they would entertain offers for all or part of the land, and that several parties have already expressed interest in bidding on it.
The Conservation Society is trying to find the right buyer for all or part of the site before the March 18 deadline. For more information, contact me here.