An unusual sight began to rise on the edge of Philadelphia in 1964. It was a pyramid, a unique form for a decidedly ordinary function: automobile gas and service station. This modern temple of petrol, resembling the set of a Sixties-era science fiction TV show, was the work of renowned mid-century architect Vincent G. Kling. His growing firm was hired by the Atlantic Refining Company to create a stunning visual statement that would serve as a symbol of progress for Atlantic. The gas station inadvertently became the gateway to a stretch of remarkable contemporary development on the edge of the Main Line that we know today. It would also become one of the first battlefields in the country for the preservation of modern architecture.
Architectural Acumen at the Pump
Atlantic was no stranger to bold, architectural statements. At the beginning of the service station boom freestanding structures were replacing haphazard pumps installed outside existing businesses. Atlantic spared no expense when it hired Joseph F. Kuntz to create terra cotta temples to the petroleum industry in the early 1920s. Each were made of blocks glazed to resemble Mount Airy granite. Some were adorned with tile mosaics depicting scenes of motoring. Many of these Neoclassical temples were circular. They were beautiful, but not especially practical. All are now lost, except for one that was rescued from demolition and is now used as a gazebo on the campus of the Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware.
Atlantic’s architecture evolved as enclosed service bays became a necessity and land along America’s “gasoline alleys” grew in value. Although still detailed, Atlantic stations of the late 1920s became simpler and more standardized. By the 1940s, Atlantic had adopted the so-called “ice box” form popular with nearly every large oil company: rectangular flat-roofed forms with white porcelain enamel paneling covering the facades.
An “ice box” was exactly the type of building that Atlantic employee Alfred DeCurtis requested at 1 East City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd in 1952. Before World War II, DeCurtis was sole proprietor of gas stations in the city. After the war he worked successfully for Atlantic’s business division. DeCurtis enjoyed being a business owner and wanted to go back to running a station. Because of his success at the company, Atlantic obliged. DeCurtis took over proprietorship of the three-bay station at one of the main entry points to the leafy neighborhoods of the Main Line in 1952. It was just over a decade later that the company would choose that corner for its greatest architectural experiment since the days of its terra cotta temples.
The Birth of Bala Cynwyd’s “Golden Mile”
Lower Merion’s mid-century modern mecca was actually rooted in the period of its earliest European settlers. The plot where the Atlantic station stood was located at the western end of a storied family’s historic compound, one that for generations claimed no less than a mile of frontage on City Avenue. Its owners, the Roberts family, was one of the oldest and most prominent in Lower Merion. Residences of the Roberts clan lined the north side of City Avenue from Conshohocken State Road all the way to the Schuylkill River, dominated by the original stone mansion known as “Pencoyd.” The mansion, built on property deeded to them by William Penn in the late 17th century, had been expanded substantially in phases, including once from designs by Allen Evans of Furness & Evans. The Roberts family founded the nearby Pencoyd Iron Works along the Schuylkill River in 1852. George B. Roberts, sixth generation owner of the Pencoyd mansion, was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1880 to 1897.
The Roberts family’s continuous use of the Pencoyd property as an estate and farm allowed a majority of the land to stay open while other sections of Lower Merion were heavily developed, thanks in large part to the access that George B. Roberts’ railroad provided to the region. The death of George’s son, T. Williams Roberts, in 1962 sealed the farm’s fate. The family home of over 250 years was sold by his estate in 1964. The once-prosperous farm then became known as the “Golden Mile,” an immense development opportunity timed well to coincide with the completion of the adjacent Schuylkill Expressway in 1960. The Expressway’s exit to City Avenue/Route 1 turned the former farm into the region’s most desirable stretch of real estate. Both sides of City Avenue were built up rapidly with hotels, residential towers, and restaurants to draw both locals and vacationers. WFIL (later WPVI) commissioned Vincent Kling to design its circular studio building on the Philadelphia side directly across from George Howe and Robert Montgomery Brown’s 1952 WCAU headquarters on the Lower Merion side.
Lower Merion Township has always been a place rooted in its traditions, from the stone remnants of the 18th century mills to the European-inspired baronial estates of industrialists. In the 20th century, the city continued its trendsetting architectural reputation by becoming a bastion for modern architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, experimented in affordable housing with his Suntop Homes in Ardmore. Modern houses sprung up across the sprawling landscapes of Gladwyne and Penn Valley, including the home Vincent Kling designed for his own family in 1950. At that time, Kling was still establishing his firm and was just a few years away from designing some of Center City’s mid-century landmarks like the Municipal Services Building and Penn Center. After a long career, his firm’s mark was left in Lower Merion almost as much as Center City. Lankenau Hospital, Harriton Senior High School, and a smattering of ultra-modern residences were products of Kling’s office.
Kling’s practice contributed several landmarks along the Golden Mile, including a chapel at the Episcopal Academy (now part of the St. Joseph’s University campus) and the WFIL TV studio. The 1949 “ice box” Atlantic gas station at the corner of Conshohocken State Road was suddenly outdated with the rise of a sleek, new neighbors on the old Pencoyd Farm. Kling was evidently the natural choice to devise a completely new concept in service stations, something eye-catching to stand at the entrance to the area’s newest architectural magnet.
A Pyramid Rises on City Avenue
Alfred DeCurtis learned to be a salesman while attending Overbrook High School. His charisma led him to become one of the area’s most successful newspaper salesmen, as recalled by his son Bob. That experience trained him well for being sole proprietor of the station in Bala Cynwyd, which was one of the most profitable in the region under his watch. Its prime location near all the trappings of Main Line wealth and education would have been the obvious explanation, yet DeCurtis thought location had nothing to do with it. He would tell people that he could be just as successful with a gas station at the end of a dark alley. Atlantic had an elite “million gallon club” for those who could dispense that much fuel in a year. DeCurtis would routinely hit the two million mark. “That should’ve been Turnpike material,” his son says. Atlantic’s choice to make the City Avenue station its flagship was not a difficult one.
Kling’s office finalized the plans for the building at the end of 1962 and submitted them to Lower Merion Township’s building department. The business remained open as construction commenced and continued into 1964. The ceremonial opening took place on December 3, 1964, and Atlantic made sure every local news outlet was there to cover it. Bob DeCurtis remembers that plastic “Diana” cameras and film were given out as gifts to the first few hundred customers of the pyramid. The supplies were depleted in half a day.
Atlantic promoted the gas station in local media as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary year of the company’s use of freestanding service stations. In an Inquirer article from April 30, 1964, Kling said about its design, “All too often the architecture of the American street intersection is nothing but a tabloid of signs, and there comes a time when you can’t out-neon any longer. In designing the new Atlantic service center we have made the function speak out in place of a bunch of signs.” This was a decade before Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, which introduced the idea that oversized signage could act as a defining architectural element. The pyramid’s corporate identity was relatively understated, with only small “Atlantic” text angled downward from the pyramid’s peak. As Kling told the Inquirer in 1993, “Instead of a great big sign saying, ‘I’m here to peddle gas,’ you have a building with some aesthetic posture. You have a big roof with tiles instead of a big sign with neon lights. Let the architecture say ‘I’m here to pump gas.’ It’s an educated way to do a plebeian thing.” At night, the shapes and material elements created an even more dramatic look, with lighting pointed upward at the pyramid’s roof of overlapping tiles.
Although the shape of Kling’s building was inventive, its use of materials was an unexpected callback to the previous generation. The tiles covering its roof were actually overlapping white porcelain enamel panels, the same architectural building block that covered the flat vertical facades of every “ice box” service station of the past. From the ground level it was the station’s full-glass first floor that made it appealing. Selling things was not the building’s primary function, but the all-glass first story facade made the small retail space approachable and the service garage activity visible to all. The garage (or “lubritorium”) was accessed via huge sliding glass doors about 20 feet in width. Bob DeCurtis remembers the effort it took to move them and the enormous weight that he feared would someday crush his fingers. “In the winter you moved them 50 times a day.”
Kling, explaining why he thought the pyramid plan was ideal for a service station, said in an Inquirer article from July 1993, “The triangular shape of the gas station came out of my desire to respond to cars coming off the street diagonally to get gas. [The shape] also allowed the attendant to easily monitor all the pumps from a central location–remember they had to pump all the gas themselves in those days. Once the triangular plan was set, the pyramidal roof was a natural outgrowth.” While Kling recalled that the pyramid’s intent as a prototype for possible future Atlantic stations, the company was cautious and evidently skeptical of the architect’s thinking.
Kling denied rumors that the design was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark Beth Shalom synagogue in Elkins Park, which also featured a segmented pyramidal roof and sharp angles. Yet, that didn’t keep some from calling the service station “Temple Beth Arco.” Arco was the corporate identity that Atlantic adopted in the late 1960s.
On the inside, the service area took up the rear of of the pyramid and contained four lifts. The front of the building, in the foremost “point” of the equilateral triangle, contained a small waiting area with no concessions except for four vending machines selling cigarettes, Coca-Cola, coffee, and candy. From a small mezzanine level above, station management could keep an eye on both sections.
Flashy and (Mostly) Functional
Working in a pyramid proved to be a challenge for Alfred DeCurtis and his employees. Kling told a reporter for the Inquirer in April 1964 that the pyramid “made possible excellent internal space utilization of the building, and permitted the best possible use of the driveway space surrounding the structure.” As much as Bob DeCurtis loved the building, he does not agree. Thinking back to those days, he doesn’t understand how such a shape could have been considered effective by Kling or Atlantic.
The striking porcelain panels of the roof presented another challenge. Bob DeCurtis remembers that the reflection of the morning sun blinded shoppers leaving the Penn Fruit supermarket next door. A remedy was quickly sought, similar to the controversy that forced alterations to curved metal panels on Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles four decades later.
A consequence of the pyramid’s dramatic nighttime lighting was that it attracted swarms of insects, which, in turn, brought hungry birds that nested in the sign at the pyramid’s peak. Predictably, these unwelcome tenants required Bob DeCurtis and his colleagues to wash the pristine roof with a hose frequently.
Bob DeCurtis recalls that the station became somewhat of a suburban version of the Wanamaker eagle, a landmark that was easy to describe and spot, which also made it the perfect backdrop for news stories. “Because Channels 6 and 10 were right down the street, not only did we take care of the staff and the stars, but also their vehicles for gas and repairs. So we became the place for those folks to come out and speak to a gas station guy during the gas crisis.” When the Penn Fruit store next door became an Acme, the driveway connecting the two lots was closed off in order to avoid future gas lines from interfering with the use of Acme’s lot.
Changes came swiftly over the succeeding decades, especially when the profitability of food marts became as much a focus of gas stations as the sale of fuel. The pyramid presented Arco’s corporate architects with a challenge: its unusual shape didn’t match the regimented rectangular forms of all of its other buildings. Freezer cases did not fit well into the triangular interior, for example. The enlarged retail space also forced a reduction in the rear service area.
Atlantic retained ownership of the site throughout the DeCurtis family’s time as sole proprietors of the station. The company retook control in 1986. Two years later the company became part of Sun Oil, which was focused on rebranding all of its stations with the Sunoco name. The peak of the pyramid was covered with new A-Plus Mini Mart signs, and its all-glass first floor was mostly enclosed with exterior walls.
Rallying Around a Local Landmark
Sun Oil’s June 1991 application for a permit to demolish the pyramid did not go unnoticed. Lower Merion Township’s Board of Historical Architectural Review (HARB), chaired by architect Robert DeSilets, made their opposition to the application known. The pyramid had been included in Lower Merion surveys of historic resources since 1985, although no ordinance had yet been passed to protect the resources the survey identified. HARB discussed the station’s fate during several meetings in 1991, and members met with representatives of the company to explore different pump locations that could potentially spare the pyramid while serving the corporation’s needs.
What’s most remarkable about the attempt by DeSilets and HARB to save the building is just how “new” the service station was at the time. Not even 30 years after its opening, members of the community were advocating for its preservation, very likely making it one of the first mid-century modern buildings in the region to be fought for by the architectural community. The effort even predated the creation of the U.S. chapter of Docomomo, the international organization advocating for the preservation of Modern architecture. In 1993, DeSilets told the Inquirer, “A building doesn’t have to be old to be historic… The whole placement on the property, the look, it was very modern, radically different.”
Despite the outcry, there was little the Township could do since the building was not in a locally designated historic district, and an inventory of individually protected resources in Lower Merion was seven years away. Members of the DeCurtis family, who had worked on that corner for nearly 35 years, were flattered by the preservation effort, but Bob DeCurtis knew that the shape of the building was not functional. From a business perspective, DeCurtis understood the position of a company spokesman who, in 1993, told the Inquirer, “If you go into any A-Plus food store you can see there is a logical process to everything, the way traffic flows. That station is now a makeshift, jury-rigged food market.” Consistency, rather than uniqueness, was the company’s goal in the 1990s. “If you go into one (A-Plus) in Pennsylvania it should look just like one in New York. We don’t want 15 differently designed buildings so people will be confused,” said Paul Durkin, company spokesman for Sun Co., Inc., in an Inquirer article from May 1993.
After the brief preservation battle, the building was razed in the summer of 1993. Kling, then 77, said to the Inquirer, “It feels bad to see it go. I thought it was a milestone marker in the history of gas stations.” Sun Oil asked Bob DeCurtis, who had reversed his father’s career path by moving from the service station to the company’s corporate structure, if he wanted to take the ceremonial first strike with a sledgehammer, but he couldn’t bring himself to take the swing.
Bala Cynwyd’s “Golden Mile” on the north side of City Avenue continues to see changes well into its second half-century. The WCAU television studio designed by George Howe and Robert Montgomery Brown, in continuous use by Channel 10 from 1952, was recently vacated when the network’s operations moved to the new Comcast Technology Center. Down the road, the 1955 Lord & Taylor store designed by the architectural wing of Raymond Loewy’s firm may soon see the wrecking ball to make way for new residential buildings. Kling’s WFIL/WPVI studio on the Philadelphia side was demolished in 2010.
Bob DeCurtis still recalls the pyramid fondly, which his wife, Susan, remembers as the “pineapple.” He recently found himself in the neighborhood and decided to make a stop at the station, which still operates as a popular Sunoco. “I pulled in, parked, and stood there, roughly where the point (of the pyramid) would have been. When you were working full-service, we all stood at the point that faces the island to wait for customers to come in. It took me a couple minutes to get my bearings, but [I thought] ‘it’s the same sky, the same shopping center, it’s the same city… it was a very nice feeling that I went home, so to speak.”
City Avenue could be seen as the Main Line’s version of the Las Vegas Strip, which famously reinvents itself with each new generation. As mid-century buildings in the suburbs struggle to prove their architectural merits, it is worth remembering the fight to save a little petrol pyramid that stood as a gateway to the Main Line.
The author would like to thank Bob DeCurtis, Bruce Laverty, Curator of Architecture at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, and William Whitaker, Curator and Collections Manager of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania for their insight and assistance in researching this article.