United Oil's High-Octane Design

Company president Jeff Appel spares no expense ensuring Southern California fueling stops' artful architecture stands out from the humdrum pack

Mid-construction, the skeletal structure on the busy corner of Slauson and La Brea avenues in Los Angeles resembles some kind of futuristic amusement park roller coaster, with its elevated scaffolding, circular ramps, and a soaring canopy reminiscent of The Jetsons.

Actually, the building, to be completed this summer, will be the newest United Oil gas station. Designed by well-known L.A. modernist Stephen Kanner—the architect of Westwood's award-winning In-N-Out Burger and the mixed-use tower rising at Hollywood and Vine—the station pays homage to both the L.A. freeway system and to the curvaceous geometry of 1950's Googie architecture, with its bold use of glass and neon and upswept roofs.

The United Oil station will look decidedly unlike the gas stations on the three other corners of the intersection. A long, curved concrete ramp, built to resemble a freeway entrance, will deposit drivers into a car wash (though customers just wanting to fill the tank can drive straight to the pumps). The sleek, spacious convenience store will feature imported Italian Terrazzo floor tiles—in red with flecks of mother of pearl—and a dramatically big curved glass window with a view on the retro-cartoonish yellow gas pumps. And forget asphalt—the pumps themselves will stand on glazed, two-tone, poured-concrete islands.

With a price tag of $5 million—roughly twice the design and construction cost of a typical station—the new United Oil location is the most ambitious yet commissioned by Jeff Appel, president of the Southern California independent family-owned gas retailer.

A Passion for Pumps

When it comes to designing gas stations, Appel is a man obsessed. "A lot of times I get carried away," he admits. "But it's my passion. I know that's never going to pay off, but it fills me with pride and elevates the brand in the public eye.

"I can't sleep at night if an idea comes to me," says Appel, a self-described architecture buff who majored in psychology at UCLA. He never knows where or when inspiration will strike; but when it does, he spares no expense in executing his vision, using top-line materials such as copper detailing and hand-cut slate. One of his stations boasts a 26-foot tower inspired by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, with blue and pink windowpanes, a glass mosaic waterfall, and a $250,000 portico adorned with imported French tiles that took five weeks to attach by hand.

Appel went Western at another station, outfitting it with antique barrels and old Indian cigar store totems. Inside, a trompe l'oeil painting of an old ore wagon in a mine shaft fills the wall behind the cash register. Outside, the $140,000 poured-concrete surface resembles wooden planks. At another station, Appel commissioned an elaborate Greek mural to go with the station's Mediterranean theme.

Appel's adventures in design date back to the 1980s when Los Angeles began requiring that gas stations add more green plants on-site to help counterbalance the fuel's impact on air quality. Appel began landscaping his stations with interesting plants and foliage and later started to erect extravagant topiary hedges: dolphins jumping through hoops of bougainvillea, monkeys swinging in trees, as well as menageries of lions and winged horses.

He moved into architecture timidly at first, repainting a purple-and-orange metal canopy in a more subtle red and black. Then in 1993, he was given full rein to build a new station from the ground up in the well-to-do coastal neighborhood of Corona del Mar. Appel commissioned the architect Philip Sniderman to create columns and stucco walls and, because it was a Mobil station, created a winged horse topiary. He also hired a French artist to create a mural of the ocean. "It was a thrill," he says. "There was an ugly wall, and I said, 'Let's put up a mural.' And little by little the architecture got more advanced."

A Tradition of Design

United Oil was founded in 1948 by Jeff Appel's grandfather, John Appel, and his father Ronald joined the business in 1955. Jeff came on board in 1982.

Starting with a handful of stations, United steadily expanded and today owns 113 stations, making it one of the largest independent gas retailers in California, with $1 billion in revenue. The company also owns a number of stations leased under the brands Chevron, Unocal, and ARCO. United Oil is also a gasoline wholesaler operating 17 tanker trucks.

The company's headquarters in industrial Gardena, Calif., is notable for its flagstone mosaic exterior. While the architectural vision is driven by Appel, he works closely with United Oil's full-time architect and design staff—or, if he wants to "get a different flavor," hires an outside architect such as Kanner.

Appel's stations might seem the expensive hobby of an eccentric entrepreneur, but at one time American gas stations were hallmarks of innovative design. The Wadhams Service Station in Milwaukee, for instance, was built to look like a Japanese teahouse. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a Phillips 66 in Cloquet, Minn. And painter Ed Ruscha immortalized the genre in his 1963 work, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas. But when the interstate highway system was built in the mid-1950s it brought national gas-station chains with their homogenous metal canopies and boxy mini-marts selling snack foods and cigarettes.

Now Appel admits he's addicted to design. "I'm like a junkie," he says. While he always sets himself a target budget, he also almost always blows it. Effectively limited only by his imagination, he says that down the line he wants to create a convenience store that resembles the inside of an aquarium. In a new property he recently purchased, Appel is attempting to create a micro-climate inside the mini-mart that changes every 20 minutes from night to day and where he can create whole weather systems including rain and sandstorms. The estimate for the special effects alone was $500,000, which he admits is too much, but he hasn't given up on the idea.

One of his newest stations, not yet unveiled, will feature Appel's fascination with the fabled textile designer Fortuny. There will be swirling lighting fixtures made of band-cut steel and draped in 300 square feet of a fabric that cost $300 a yard. "The light fixtures alone cost $200,000," says Appel. "I know it doesn't make sense. I'm afraid to look at the costs now."

Art's Risks—and Rewards

He admits to some costly blunders in the past, but they have not deterred him. For instance, an Alice In Wonderland theme didn't work out well. And once he used glittery auto body paint on a station's exterior. "For what it cost, nobody appreciated it," he says. "And when it gets dirty, you're stuck."

His father Ron, who was a bit skeptical at first, now says: "I don't think anybody could lay out a site any better than [Jeff]." He still grows a bit weary at the cost of his son's vision, he admits, but explains, "You know we don't spend money on advertising, and to be different lends us something."

"How a station is designed in many cases gets customers to stop at a location for the first time," says Jim Fisher, CEO of IMST Corp., a Houston-based specialty-retail forecaster and analyst. "But what creates habitual levels of support and behavior change is the shopping experience. There are several factors—price and convenience—and design is just one. It can be instrumental in the first exposure, but it won't create in and of itself a long-term customer."

According to Appel, the average United station sells about 335,000 gallons a month, more than twice the industry average of 150,000 gallons. The firm's highest-volume store (it has a Mediterranean theme) does 1 million gallons a month. But even Appel says that customers don't flock to his stations necessarily because of the topiary giraffes or copper detailing on the canopies, but rather because of location and competitive pricing—United charges three to four cents less than its competitors per gallon. And he is well aware he could simply build new stations for half the price and none of the headaches. But, he says, "Ultimately, my designs will outlast history. I get excited 10 to 12 days before a store opens. It's a legacy. Rather than buy paintings to look at, I'm spending my money and people can enjoy them, and it raises the quality of the company."

And even if Appel's design investments wouldn't meet return-on-investment expectations in the corporate world, there's a social return. "Architecture brings and creates value through design and improves the world that we live in," says architect Stephen Kanner. "A gas station doesn't have to be an anonymous object. Architecture can make a difference in society and can make a real statement even with just a gas station."