Service station sentimentality: frozen in time without spending a dime.

On a quiet corner in a mostly residential area, a modest little gas station offers a visual time warp to the 1950s.IMG_4235Where are all the digital numbers?   And how much would it cost just to keep those dinosaur gas pumps working in this day and age? Normally, when we encounter a service station with infrastructure this old—yet still clearly operable—it’s in a far-flung corner of rural America where the intensity of use is low enough to render any sort of modernizing investment unnecessary.

But that’s not the case here.vintage Kensington service stationThe Kensington Service Center sits squarely within the mostly residential Town of Kensington in Montgomery County, Maryland, at one time a farming settlement, then a summer refuge from the sultry swamps of nearby Washington DC. By the 1920s, it established itself as a mature bedroom community, surrounded by the proliferating suburbanization that has in recent years pushed Montgomery County’s population over one million.

The Kensington Service Center is neither rural nor far-flung. It’s also not poor. Though many the houses within the half square mile that comprises the Town of Kensington appear to be modest Cape Cods and bungalows, the incomes—characteristic of most of Montgomery County—are well within the top decile.IMG_4237IMG_4238And much of the development surrounding Kensington is more aggressively automobile oriented, leaving the town a comparative anomaly. This service station sits at an intersection that may essentially comprise Kensington’s downtown, immediately adjacent to a rail line that now serves DC’s commuting population. Hugging each side of the rail line is a mix of older (pedestrian-scaled) and newer (car-friendly) commercial buildings.IMG_4236IMG_4233The walkable strip of shops fronting the railway is Kensington’s Antique Row, fully visible in this Google Street View.

Considering the income density in the surrounding area, one might think that a service station like this one might need to update its infrastructure to remain competitive. Clearly it doesn’t. In fact, Kensington Service Center seems to oppose advancements, and yes, it’s deliberate. Operating since 1926, the website cultivates vintage photographs of classic cars, while the interior walls feature collectibles from over the years. And the nostalgia approach extends to the operations: as reviewers note, one staffer pumps the gas for their customers, while another washes windshields. The owners are evoking an old filling station in a town that itself largely signals a bygone era from when it really was an isolated hamlet—a striking contrast from the latticework of highways that surround Kensington today.

But it’s not alone. Even the more contemporary shopping districts of Kensington seem to savor their patina.IMG_4229IMG_4228IMG_4232A successfully, fully occupied neighborhood strip mall could have undergone a complete face lift to make itself more modern and upscale, but in Kensington, the sun-bleached, mundane signs hint at a pedigree. It reminds me of the array of storefront signs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a much more contemporary-looking retail environment, where the oldest establishments proudly let their promotional signs rust and fade as a testament to their long-running operations. The Kensington example less fancy than most other strip malls these days: the parking lot is plain, the landscaping is sparse, the architectural details are lacking. Yet the scale of the establishment does not allow the parking to overwhelm the streetscape, and it still retains a fundamental walkability, even though the parking lot is the true centerpiece. The lack of clear upgrades or investment is a major source of the appeal.

The Kensington aesthetic isn’t entirely coincidental: the core of the town rests within the Maryland and National Register for Historic Places. But it’s rare to find service stations and strip malls—two building typologies we typically associate with bland suburban ubiquity—enjoying such a carefully cultivated aesthetic, and one that avoids highbrow gestures in preference of freezing a certain period in time. As one reviewer stated, “Feels like Mayberry.” But with six-figure incomes.

Positive word-of-mouth has impelled visitors to get to stop by the Kensington Service Center for gas, just to experience how it all used to happen back in the day. And it’s a good thing this service station adds this personal touch: as of last year, Oregon became the penultimate state to repeal laws that forbade customers to pump their own gas (at least in rural Oregon). This law leaves New Jersey as the last state in the country requiring employees to pump gas for customers—that and places like the Kensington Service Station, which might as well keep its practices and appearance going for another ninety years.

 

14 thoughts on “Service station sentimentality: frozen in time without spending a dime.

  1. Brian M

    Interesting,. To be contrarian, though, I might argue that the strip mall, in particular, is holding on to design from the nadir of American architecture and planning. The 1950s-1970s are a period that should be replaced, even if aging Boomers find it tweaks their nostalgia.

    Does anyone REALLY pine for the permanent preservation of a 1975 Denny’s?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You could be right, Brian…though bear in mind that evidence shows that just about any time an art form or cultural movement–even the most maligned–sinks into “endangered” status, a coterie of admires manages to organize to save what’s left. It happened with Space-Age or “Googie” architecture, most of which was affixed to drive-thru retail establishments that had gone belly up by the early 1970s, a time when that architectural style seemed cringe-worthy. Now historians are scrambling to save what’s left.

      The brutalist movement that succeeded space-age also earns very little love from the public, but the buildings were constructed to last (and often cannot be altered, which is their great weakness). But some of the least successful brutalist structures have gotten demolished. While numerous examples survive across office parks and university libraries, what will happen to brutalism in the next 20 years?

      As a form of development, though, I’m with you 100% about the strip mall…it’s still everywhere, and the little one here in Kensington is no better than the one from the same time period eight miles away that is 90% vacant. Should the demand escalate for a better land use at this site, I wouldn’t be sad to see this one in Kensington go…but I’d bet you dollars to donuts a preservation group would rally to save it.

      Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      Also, to you and Mike B, I wish I had photographed the outside of this old service station. It definitely belongs to a different era, and while the original architects probably had no intention of making a special building, by today’s standards it’s visually distinct.

      At the very least, here’s a good Google Street View of the corner: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.0280075,-77.0745397,3a,75y,184.16h,93.59t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s9Ap3Z2YJdKZZYl8QKDEFOg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Very much indeed. It might have been a precursor to prefab styles that became popular a few decades later. Glad to know the one in Indy is still operational.

          Reply
  2. Mike B

    I think it’s a neat idea to have a section of a town one grew up in to remain frozen in time. You can always go back and the memories will be as fresh as the day they were created. On an economical position,I’m not sure the need for a TV repair shop as in today’s day and age that is something that runs along the lines of “Telegram service” that even nostalgia feels no need to preserve.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yeah, Mike, I think that’s the beauty of old buildings–at a certain point in time, something formerly new is pushed back into “old”, which, in this era of demolition and rebuilding, immediately makes it a novelty–and therefore something much more interesting and aesthetically appealing. This metamorphosis occurs with both architectural landmarks and buildings as mundane as an old gas station.

      With regards to TV repair shops (or, in this case, clock repair), I have no idea they manage, especially in a pricey area like Kensington. When we normally think of niche repair places–the sort that really only attract hobbyists–they’re often in forlorn locations because the leasing rates are cheaper. Exactly what they need when they’re running a business with limited appeal.

      Reply
  3. mary

    Kensington Television (pictured in the strip mall) is also frozen in time. It’s worth visiting Doug, the proprieter and his shop, a veritable museum of antique radios and tv’s.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the info, mary. It doesn’t surprise me that Kensington Television has been around a while–I mean, take a look at that weathered sign. But it surprises me that it continues to operate in such an expensive area. Knicknack places that appeal to hobbyists usually have to find cheap real estate because their revenue stream isn’t always the most consistent.

      Then again, maybe this strip mall is old and neglected enough that it’s the cheapest retail space around. But the location is good enough that the land underneath it would be worth top dollar.

      Reply

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