Both an oversized billboard and a local landmark, this iconic Shell station is on claass HAUS today.
Surely you've seen this building. You might not know where it is or who was responsible for it, but you have definitely seen it. Robert Venturi would describe it as a "duck," historians might attribute its form to a kind of vernacular literalism, but whether its a sign or a folly, the Shell station in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, remains a classic piece of Americana, a symbol of roadside architecture's universal appeal.
Built in the early 1930s, the station rises from a concrete pad, a perfectly curved shell with thick ridges and a familiar form. Fabricated from a wire and bent wood frame covered in thick concrete, the shell is sixteen feet high and twenty feet wide with its front facade pierced by a central entrance. Originally part of a larger commercial landscape consisting of service bays, driveways, gas pumps, and signage, today the station stands alone at the corner of Sprague and Peachtree Streets, a neat, preserved relic of the early automobile age. But even after several decades, the giant clamshell, painted bright yellow with red accents, is an unmistakable corporate logo, an oversized sign capturing the attention of those who pass through the intersection.
Shell Oil entered the Winston-Salem market in 1929 (as the Quality Oil Company), and after only minimal gains, the local division decided to take a more radical approach to advertising. Under the leadership of Joe H. Glenn, Jr., the head of Shell's jobbership in Winston-Salem, the company unveiled plans to build a seashell-shaped station (based on the corporate logo) to capture consumer attention while gaining a larger share of the competitive market. Though responsibility for the final design remains unclear, Glenn along with Charles R. Johnson, a draftsman for Blum Construction, both played a role in the development of the unique shell structure. On June 4, 1930, the first of Winston-Salem's shell-shaped filling stations opened on Burke Street followed by seven more clamshells (including this one) in the subsequent years. An amalgamation of corporate iconography and local building methods, the creators of the shell design used architecture as a successful branding device, driving business and inspiring curiosity.
By the mid 1930s, the seashell form had to be abandoned for a larger design that could accommodate the wide array of services offered by a filling station. One by one, the shell stations were dismantled, and by the 1970s, only one of the distinctive buildings remained. In 1976, the surviving station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and during the late 1990s, a restoration effort led by Preservation North Carolina ensured the building's survival as one of America's most iconic roadside attractions.
You can find more information on visiting the last remaining shell here.
All photographs by claass HAUS.
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