Driving along this country’s major highways and through its cities and towns, one can’t help but encounter vacant buildings of all kinds, often boarded up and left unoccupied for years. Many of these vacated structures are fueling and service stations, closed because of high oil prices and competition from large retailers, such as Costco and Walmart, which now sell gasoline at a discount. According to data reported in The New York Times, between 1991 and 2012, more than 50,000 service stations nationwide shut down for various, mostly economic, reasons.As these properties age and sit empty, their owners face the challenge of deciding what to do with them. They can renovate and try to identify a lessee, or they may consider simply tearing down the structure. Many will see demolition as the most economically viable solution because there may not be many investors interested in opening a service station in a location where the same business type has already failed.
Architects and designers, on the other hand, often see hidden potential in these unused structures—potential that requires an eye for adaptive reuse possibilities. As it happens, with regard to a vacant fuel and service station in Princeton, N.J., not far from our architecture studio, this was exactly the experience of the design team of which we were a part. The former Amoco station had been sitting empty for some time, and it stood out as a unique opportunity. The structure is an elegant example of the 1930s modernist-style, certainly worth preserving, and located adjacent to an active shopping center. After the building had been on our radar for some time, we reached out to the building’s owner group to discuss possible new uses.
Experience and Opportunity
To many it may seem odd to consider transforming an old gas station into any kind of hospitality venue, especially food service. But our firm’s combined expertise and significant portfolio of successful adaptive reuse projects made the task seem very doable. Discussions with the owner touched on a variety of possible new uses for the structure. One aspect of conversion that our team was most passionate and excited about was the notion of preserving and incorporating the structure’s original features. The bold lines, flat roofs and deep overhangs representative of the 1930s modernist style were just the beginning: The station’s three service bays invited our imaginations to run wild with possibilities. We were hoping for an opportunity to update the space with sustainable design elements and modern efficiency while preserving as much of the original character as possible and accentuating it with color and architectural flourishes. It was our hope to transform this “diamond in the rough” into a suitable location for a thriving business.
While discussions with the owner continued (even through a change in ownership), Stalin Bedon and Tom Grim, the owners of Nomad Pizza in Philadelphia and Hopewell, N.J., were looking for
a location to open a third restaurant. The pair had a history of working with unique structures: Nomad Pizza started out as a food truck enterprise, specifically a 1949 REO Speedwagon truck outfitted with a wood-burning oven imported from Italy. Princeton seemed the perfect fit for a new restaurant location, and Bedon and Grim were not daunted by the prospect of trans- forming a former gas station.
The conversion project began with planning updates to the structure’s shell. This was challenging for several reasons, not least because the exterior of the building had started to deteriorate. Salt and other elements caused significant damage to existing structural columns,
as well as to the garage doors. Our team recommended mitigating this damage by including in construction the installation of new steel and reinforcements to the foundation. We also carefully assessed the original roof to determine whether the existing wood-plank frame could support the weight of the roof-installed mechanical equipment necessary for a restaurant facil- ity. We specified tapered insulation over the existing wood substrate with a cooling white-colored EPDM membrane overlay.
Programming and Designing
The design team was determined to deliver a venue appropriate for food service that would celebrate the structure’s modernist character and original purpose. This required replacing the existing concrete slab, which was in poor condition and, as the floor of a working garage, had been in regular contact with motor oil and gasoline. Additionally, the slab needed to be elevated to address some of the property’s drainage requirements.
Discussions with the property owner resulted in a decision to reverse the original orientation of the building so that the restaurant’s front would face the shopping center rather than the street as the service station had. For the facade, the materials palette included western red cedar plank, storefront systems and large glass panels, used to close off the old service bays on the street-facing side. The design team was careful to harmonize the compositions of the front and back elevations by matching the heights of the aluminum mullions. Decisions like these were made collaboratively and with careful attention to project cost and to preserving—even recapturing—the building’s original look from the 1930s.