Wright Side of the Road, story on 50th anniversary in Architecture MN magazineOn the 50th anniversary of Cloquet’s Lindholm Service Station—the only building of its kind designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—the Lindholm/McKinney family shares the story of an unlikely work of art.
By: By Linda Mack for Architecture Minnesota magazine, Pine Journal
In the early 1930s, when his practice was flagging, Frank Lloyd Wright developed a comprehensive vision for a decentralized American landscape. Called Broadacre City, the plan envisioned that each man, woman, and child would own an acre of land, that cars would speed around on flowing highways, and that skyscrapers and Usonian houses would be surrounded by green space that would alleviate the deadening impact of urban living. Broadacre City was a utopian vision of a suburbia that never developed, and none of its designs for specific pieces of this landscape was realized except one: a gorgeous gas station, built in Cloquet.
An icon of roadside architecture, the R.W. Lindholm Service Station turns 50 this year, and its anniversary is being celebrated on August 7 with lectures, tours, a classic car show, and gas pumped by uniformed service station attendants at 1950s prices. “We’re hoping to get people up here for the weekend, not only to tour the building but also to immerse themselves in the culture of the era in which it was built,” says SJA Architects’ Ken Johnson, AIA, who is representing the Northern Chapter of the American Institute of Architects Minnesota on the community planning committee.
While the typical two-bay gas station of the time cost $5,000, Wright’s steel-canopied version with a copper roof and a second-floor observation lounge cost $20,000, says John McKinney, grandson of Ray and Emma Lindholm, who built it. (The McKinney family still owns the building and leases it out.) But Lindholm, a Finnish immigrant who took a Swedish name in America, knew what he was getting into. Wright had already designed a house for the couple before the station was begun.
It was the Lindholm’s daughter Joyce and her husband Daryl McKinney who planted the seed for Wright’s involvement. “My grandparents wanted to build a house,” relates John McKinney, “and Wright was going to speak at the University of Minnesota. Mom encouraged them to come down to hear him. Then they went to Spring Green to visit him.”
Joyce and Daryl had toured the Idea House built behind the Walker Art Center to showcase contemporary design, and “Joyce was particularly interested in architecture,” Daryl says.
The relatively modest Lindholm house, which nonetheless exceeded the budget, was finished outside Cloquet in 1952. The Lindholms and the McKinneys visited Wright several times during the process at both Taliesin East and West. “Wright was very acerbic and somewhat sarcastic when we talked about budget,” Joyce recalls. “But he was very nice to us.” John McKinney, who was about 7, remembers him vaguely as “somewhat grandfatherly.”
Once the house was done, Wright wasted no time pushing the idea of building a gas station. Lindholm, a distributor rather than an operator, owned several gas stations in northern Minnesota. And, says Joyce, “He had the best location for a gas station in Cloquet,” at the downtown intersection of Cloquet Avenue and Highway 33.
“My grandfather was enthralled with the idea,” says John. At the time, Lindholm told his friends, “It’s an experiment to see if a little beauty can’t be incorporated in something as commonplace as a service station.”
Wright pulled the design out of the archives and adapted it to the site, says Joyce. It turned the service station model upside down. Instead of being closed in and disguised as a cottage or shed, it opened to the world with two stories of glass and celebrated its purpose. A steel canopy extended 32 feet out from the glass wall above the angled concrete-block base. “Wright wanted the hoses to come down from the canopy, but safety officials said no,” Joyce remembers.
A slender pylon held a Phillips sign. The polygonal roof is covered with copper shingles. Inside, cypress wood was used in the sales office and restroom. A second-floor observation lounge provided patrons with a waiting area—and a view of the river. Wright hoped the station would become the prototype for future Phillips stations. It was never reproduced, but Phillips did adopt the V-canopy design.
For the four McKinney boys, “It was a big deal,” says John. Not only were they excited to watch the gas station go up, but Wright apprentice Bob Pond built them a tree house. “He came over to the house one Saturday and built a tree house with all those same angles as the station,” says Mike McKinney. “We had a Frank Lloyd Wright tree house!” (The tree house doesn’t survive, but the Frank Lloyd Wright doghouse designed for the house does.)
The McKinneys have kept in touch with both Pond, who will speak at the August event, and Joel Fabré, who was the apprentice for the Lindholm house. And the family became part of the social network of Wright homeowners.
Toward the end of Wright’s life, while the gas station was being built, the McKinneys took a photo of the architect and sent it back with Pond to be signed. Wright looked at it, said it made him look old, and tore it up, says Joyce. He inserted another photo and signed the matting. “But we still had the negative, so we printed it and put it back in the frame,” she says. “He was vain to the end and creative to the end.”
Wright never saw the completed gas station. “Bob had taken some first editions of Wright books back for him to sign,” Joyce recalls, “but brought them back unsigned. He had died.”
Both the gas station and the house are still owned by the family. John says they would love to renovate the station as a tourist center and convenience store but have found the cost prohibitive. They plan to spiff it up for the August event.
Peter, the youngest McKinney son, lives in the house, which 50 years ago was in the country. “Go 10 miles out and then another 10 miles” to escape the city, Wright wrote in Broadacre City. That’s what he did when building Taliesen West near the mountains northeast of Phoenix. But the deadly fake-Spanish suburbs have built up almost to the entrance. Ditto with the Lindholm house. It’s 200 yards from a Wal-Mart.
Reprinted with permission by Architecture Minnesota magazine.