As gas prices reach new highs in Alhambra and elsewhere in California, we thought it was time to repost this story originally published 4.14.2011. And if you scroll down to the bottom, we've added a feed of local reported gas prices.
Something strange is happening to the walls surrounding the United Gas Station on the corner of Garfield and Alhambra Road. Fairies and a unicorn, giant flowers and paisley mosaics of broken glass and tile have bloomed on the wall. To pump gas is to now enter a gas station experience like no other in Alhambra: the zone of imagination belonging to Jeff Appel of United Oil.
Alhambra is the latest of more than one hundred gas stations in Southern California that Appel has transformed. Appel, whose family has been operating gas stations for 71 years, spares no expense with his obsession to make a visit to the pump a feast for the eyes: he employs architects, artists and even imports tiles from France to get it right.
“The more I do, the more I enjoy it,“ Appel said. He sees his role as a producer working with artists and letting them “dream with you and kind of guide them to where you ultimately want the project to be.”
Appel's work at United Oil fits into a long history of innovative gas station design ranging from art deco pumps to mounting a B-17 bomber to the roof of the station. Since the early 1930’s gas station owners have used architects and designers to set their gas stations apart from the competition and attract customers. Frank Lloyd Wright even got into the movement and designed his only gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota.
I caught mosaic artist Jennifer Johnson on a sweltering day last week putting the finishing touches on her part of mural. She worked with the painter Henry Good to fulfill Appel’s vision of a fairyland. “He got this idea to spruce up his stations so that the act of buying gas could be like entering a work of art and somehow this would enrich the lives of his patrons and enrich the community,” said Johnson, who also designed and installed the fountain at the Alhambra Renaissance Plaza on the corner of Garfield and Main.
“It makes me really happy,” she said, about work on the gas station projects. “He let me do a giant peacock in Northridge. It was a beautiful and classical California peacock. How happy does that make me feel as an artist that when someone is buying gas everyday they get to look at my peacock”.
Good has also collaborated extensively with Appel. He was air brushing tee shirts on the 3rd street Promenade in Santa Monica 15 years ago when a chance encounter with him launched his career as a muralist. Appel’s son liked a shark painting Good had on his cart. Three months later he was working for United Oil painting a giant shark mural. “It was a blessing to run across someone like Jeff,” Good said. “I finished that job and then another one and another one.”
The Alhambra project began with the wall design and Jeff‘s suggestion of fairies. "Fairies are alluring and grab your senses and spirit and draw you in,” Good said. “These fairies are liked by men, women and kids. They have a strong appeal. Fairies can be mischievous and dark, but these fairies are beautiful.”
When the outside is complete, Appel plans on adding a new canopy and remodel the inside of the station store to complement the mural. He also has an idea to build a magical cave with fiber optics inside the station. “ I want kids to go inside and find it cooler than the wall outside,” he said.
I passed by the station the other night with some friends to see how the mural looked in the dark. The spotlighted fairies took on a bizarre and eerie appearance and I kept thinking that Rod Serling was going to step out of the darkness smoking a cigarette and say: “ You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension — a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.” Or maybe you're just getting gas in Alhambra.
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