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Frank Lloyd Wright gas station turns 50

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50 years old
Lindholm's service station in Cloquet is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It's the only gas station designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

At Cloquet's busiest intersection, you'll find the town's chicest gas station.  It's quite the draw for camera-toting tourists, who want to capture the station's unique triangular canopy that covers two gas pumps.

The original sign for the station is on top of that canopy.  It's a rocket-like spire that now says "Wright," in honor of the architect.

Current owner
John McKinney is the current owner of Lindholm Service in Cloquet. His grandfather, Ray Lindholm, hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design and build the station, which opened in 1958.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The station is named for Ray Lindholm, who hired Wright to build it a few years after Wright built Lindholm's private home.  Lindholm's grandson, John McKinney, now owns the station.

"I think Wright probably pushed it, too, is what I'm hearing," said McKinney. "Once the house was built, [Wright said] 'Mr. Lindholm, let's build this station.'"

"Back then, the average two-bay station was $5,000. This was $20,000," McKinney added.

Passers-by are quickly drawn to the station's copper roof. 

Frank Lloyd Wright didn't actually supervise construction.  He was busy in New York, overseeing building of the Guggenheim Museum. So he sent his apprentice, Robert Pond, to build the gas station.

Wright's gas station
This gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota, is the only one that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey

Pond, now 81, lives in Montana, and still remembers how ideal the location is.

"You come over the hill there, and there's that gas station right on the corner. It was perfect," said Pond. "Especially when they first put the copper roof on, it glowed!  Of course, then we treated it to turn it green."

Annie Dugan has to know a lot about the gas station, since she directs the Carlton County Historical Society.

She says that triangle canopy creates an arrow, which directs your eyes across the street toward the St. Louis River. That was subliminal, she says: It was Wright's way of connecting the past with the present, with river traffic to vehicular traffic.

"As long as you have a dynamic design, it doesn't matter if you're doing a house, a gas station or a cathedral."

Dugan also says cars can easily move around in the space. But what you see now is not what was first designed.

"Originally the pumps were going to come directly from the ceiling, so you'd pull it down like a shower," she said.

"[Wright] talks about mother's milk and coming up to the udders and feeding your car from this, which I think is a glorious image," added Jennifer Webb, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth

Webb will be part of a panel discussion about Wright and the station on Thursday.

"Wright talks about -- as long as you have a dynamic design, it doesn't matter if you're doing a house, a gas station or a cathedral," Webb said. "And he makes that point over and over again." 

The garage repair area allows for four cars to be worked on at a time.  It also includes skylights that let in natural light.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1954.
Photo by Al Ravenna, courtesy of the Library of Congress

But the station's biggest draw, and arguably its biggest failure, is a glassed-in waiting room on the second floor.  It's also triangular and looks out over the pumps and riverfront.

Webb says Wright included a waiting room because he had a larger vision:  The gas station was to be part of a planned community called Broadacre.  Wright made models of Broadacre, but this gas station is one of the only pieces ever built.

"He imagined that all of us would come in and we'd spend time together here, because it would be a social center, a cultural center," said Webb.  

Think of it as a coffee shop with the smell of gas. But Dugan says the use of the waiting room never materialized.

Historical perspective
Anne Dugan, left, is director of the Carlton County Historical Society. Jennifer Webb, right, is an art history professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. They say community support for the gas station is strong.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"People just don't want to sit around and wait. There's plenty of other things to do," said Dugan. "There's shopping.  It's certainly a central locale, but it's just not done."

Owner John McKinney says it's a testament to Wright's design that the building still serves as a gas station.  It's been abused for 50 years, from mechanics dropping heavy car parts, to drivers misjudging the space and hitting the building with their campers.

"We're proud that our grandfather and parents were interested enough in architecture to have something like this built," McKinney said.  "At the same time we've always been a little ashamed, because it takes so much money to keep this thing up.  Every time you turn around, it's $20,000 for this and $20,000 for that."

McKinney put money into the building this summer to spruce it up for this week's celebration, but says he's not sure how long it can remain privately owned.  

Webb and Dugan say there appears to be enough community support to find a way to keep the gas station standing, even if it stops being a gas station.

And for all the people who have visited the gas station and will in the future, there's one notable who never did:  Frank Lloyd Wright himself.  He was too busy on the Guggenheim at the time, and died a few months later.