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Greek monument at Tatnall was once a 1920s gas station

November 23, 2018

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — You could say the Grecian-style monument that’s been sitting on the grounds of The Tatnall School in Greenville for the last 54 years is a real gas.

And you wouldn’t be wrong.

Though you’d never know by looking at it, the structure was a gas station in downtown Wilmington during the 1920s.

Today, the former roadside attraction is much more than a curious relic of a bygone era. It’s extremely rare.

The structure, inspired by the classic Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece, is possibly the only service station of about 50 built by and operated by the Atlantic Refining Co. from the 1920s that’s still standing.

Modern gas stations tend to be sleek and sterile. But, as goofy as it sounds now, in the 1920s, service stations were built to resemble everything from pyramids to pagodas.

And the Atlantic Refining Co., based in Philadelphia, was known for having some of the most elaborate designs.

The period after World War I was known for its economic prosperity and American auto companies flourished.

The growing Atlantic Refining Co. marketed gasoline and motor oil. From 1917 to 1922, it hired architect Joseph F. Kuntz of the Pittsburgh firm W. G. Wilkins Co. to design a number of what historian Keith A. Sculle called “monumental service stations” in the Philadelphia area.

Atlantic Refining, later to become Atlantic Richfield Co. or ARCO, also operated five service stations in Wilmington in the 1920s, according to News Journal archives.

Kuntz, perhaps best known for designing what eventually became The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, very likely created the Greek-style gas station at the corner of 11th and Washington streets in downtown Wilmington.

Kuntz was known for his sophistication. He modeled one station at 40th and Walnut streets in Philadelphia after a Classical Greek temple with columns, white terra cotta tiles, and nighttime lighting, according to an article in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia written by Alison Kreitzer.

The Philadelphia station from that period resembles the Wilmington service station. The Delaware structure also is made of white terra cotta tiles.

How long the Delaware site operated is not known. But, by the early 1960s, the Wilmington service station had been boarded up for several years.

When the Washington Street land where the station sat was purchased by a real estate company owned by Arnold Goldsborough, he wanted to clear the land.

Goldsborough gave the Greek-style structure to W. W. “Chick” Laird, the great-great-grandson of DuPont Co. founder Eleuthere Irenee du Pont.

“It’s yours,” Goldsborough is said to have told Laird.

Laird, considered one of the most important philanthropists in Delaware, gave the building, which resembles a gazebo, to The Tatnall School in August 1964. He and Tatnall School founder Frances Dorr Swift Tatnall were longtime friends.

A black-and-white photograph on the school’s website and in a News Journal article shows the monument being moved from Wilmington on the bed of a tractor-trailer.

According to News Journal archives, the gas station was cut from its foundation and moved to the private school at 1501 Barley Mill Road. The cost for the move, which caused temporary traffic jams in the city, was about $75,000.

The doors and windows were removed, the Atlantic Refining Co. name had been scrubbed away and the structure served as a pavilion.

In a commemorative book published in 2001, Tatnall School, in a moment of extreme understatement, called it “an unusual gift.”

During a 1965 dedication, Tatnall School principal Rear Adm. John F. Davidson said the old gas station didn’t serve any specific purpose other than being aesthetically pleasing and serving as a model for art students.

Sometimes, Tatnall teachers held classes there.

But by 1983, the old service station was slated to be razed because it needed costly repairs. The roof frame was rusted, wooden joints were rotting and the exterior was chipping.

Sentimental Tatnall students were crushed to learn that the pavilion would be demolished since the structure had long been a part of the campus. The city of Wilmington briefly considered acquiring the historic structure, but bowed out when learning of the expensive repairs.

Fortunately, the gas station got a last-minute reprieve from the family of Martha and Henry E.I. du Pont. They gifted the school with $10,000 to repair the Greek-style gazebo in memory of a late nephew who had attended the school. Three of the couple’s four children also attended Tatnall.

It’s a good thing they did.

A 2013 blog post written by Ken Finkel for phillyhistory.org, says while books in 1994 and 2000 cited Atlantic Refining Co.’s sophisticated stations of the 1920s, there is no mention in either one of any structures still in existence.

Delaware’s station at Tatnall School could be the lone survivor.

And it’s likely to stay that way. “It’s in great condition,” says Page McConnel, Tatnall’s director of marketing and communications.

“It’s not uncommon to see kids in it every single day,” she says. “We just love having it on campus.”

“Why is this here?” is an occasional News Journal/Delaware Online feature that looks at the history behind curious objects found throughout Delaware.

Contact Patricia Talorico at (302) 324-2861 or ptalorico@delawareonline.com and on Twitter @pattytalorico

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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