Architect Frank Lloyd Wright is best known for building a … filling station? Not exactly.

His most famous building is probably Fallingwater, a cantilevered home 90 minutes outside Pittsburgh that appears unsupported and stretches out over a 30-foot waterfall. About 4.5 million people have visited it.

But Wright did indeed design a gas station, in 1927, though plans for it fell through. But now the vividly modern station has been built from the old plans, and it’s a resplendent exhibit at the Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum in Buffalo. The high-end cars were built there and, yes, that’s a Pierce-Arrow pulled up to the gravity-feed pumps in the photo.

According to Jim Sandoro, the Buffalo native who built the museum’s collection of 85 cars and a ton of automobilia from his own collection — featuring cars built in Western New York, such as the Thomas Flyer, the Automatic Electric and the Playboy. He’s also got examples of just about everything built by Pierce-Arrow, including bicycles, motorcycles, buses, bird cages and ice boxes. The company died in 1938, a victim of the Depression and lingering debt from building trucks for World War I, Sandoro says.

The station is strikingly modern, and would have made quite a splash in 1927.

The station is strikingly modern, and would have made quite a splash in 1927. In the foreground are the gravity feed hoses. (Photo: Pierce-Arrow Transportation Museum)

“In 1927, Frank Lloyd Wright was in financial trouble,” Sandoro relates. “His studio had closed and he was in the midst of a nasty divorce. His friend Darwin D. Martin stepped in. A Buffalo industrialist, mail order pioneer, and patron of Wright’s (the Martin house, built between 1902 and 1907, is another Wright landmark), Martin offered to set up a corporation for Wright, and sell original designs.

The first of these was to be “a filling station for the 1920s,” and what a concept it was! It’s a two-story building with the gas tanks in the eaves to support a gravity feed. That sounds like a fire hazard to me, but Wright wasn't known for the practicality of his designs. There’s a copper roof, a second-story observation room with a fireplace for waiting patrons, and a pair of 45-foot poles that Wright called “totems.”

Jim Sandoro worked on the restoration of this famous Buffalo-built Thomas Flyer, the 1908 New York to Paris race winner, for casino magnate Bill Harrah.

Jim Sandoro worked on the restoration of this famous Buffalo-built Thomas Flyer, the 1908 New York to Paris race winner, for casino magnate Bill Harrah. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The just-opened station is housed in a glass atrium at the museum, and Sandoro says it cost $1 million to build (with local businesses chipping in). The high cost of building the station plans explains why it never went into production — it was $3,500, a prohibitive sum, for plans and building in 1927.

Darwin Martin House designed by Frank Lloyd Writght

The Darwin Martin House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Photo: Wikicommons)

The sad part of this story is that Darwin Martin, once a very rich man, lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. When Wright’s autobiography came out in 1932, Martin was too impoverished to buy a $6 copy, so Wright gave him one of his personal copies. But the $70,000 Wright had loaned Martin was never repaid.

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