The English Cottage Gas Station that Has a Story to Tell in Cape Charles

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  • English Cottage Gas Station in Cape Charles (JJP)

The English Cottage Gas Station that Has a Story to Tell in Cape Charles

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Eastern Shore Road TripsSome empty buildings are just that, unfortunate bits of neglected junk on the Eastern Shore landscape. Others are something else altogether—dilapidated, perhaps, but still graced with the ability to unravel fascinating secrets behind key turns in the life of the Shore—and even the country—in days gone by.

Take this old guy, for example. He stands on the outskirts of Cape Charles, just where you are finally making your way into town from the highway. With paint peeling, weeds growing, and that tattered for-sale sign in the parking lot, the building wears a sad face.

But despite all that, it still manages somehow to announce itself as a distinctive sort of structure. And that’s exactly what it is.

To those in the know, the building marks a fascinating chapter in a revolutionary development in American life and business, the birth of the automobile. As cars became more and more popular in the early years of the 20th century, the need for gas stations grew by leaps and bounds.

But gas stations did not become popular. In fact, people generally regarded them as filthy firetraps. They didn’t want gas stations located anywhere around their homes or businesses.

The way this building was designed changed all that. The self-trained architect Carl A. Petersen came up with the concept in 1926 for the Ohio-based Pure Oil Company. The general idea was to build a safe, efficient gas station that even the neighbors could love.

Soon, just about every Pure Station around the country had this distinctive English Cottage design. Each was painted white and featured a sharply pitched roof topped with blue-enameled terra cotta. Back in the day, both chimneys would have been adorned with large “P”s. These were prefabricated buildings, made of steel and faced with brick or stucco. They were trimmed with faux shutters and cute flower boxes.

Cape Charles Gas Station Mason Avenue

A second English Cottage Gas Station in Cape Charles on Mason Avenue

In the end, Petersen’s idea of transforming the gas station outgrew his original concept of placating neighbors. The distinctive architecture, common color scheme, and suburban design touches turned out to be a key first step for the entire oil industry toward what we would think of today as branding strategies.

Petersen’s cottages continued to be built into the 1950s. Ever since, they’ve been slowly but surely disappearing. The articles about them that I found don’t have a firm number on how many are left, but preservationists seem worried that more and more of them are disappearing. Cape Charles is lucky enough to have two of them actually–there is another one over on Mason Avenue that is currently empty as well.

I wouldn’t give up hope quite yet for these old girls. Sometimes, these old Pure Oil stations do find their way to Pure Eats in Lexington, VAhappy endings. The one in Monroe, WI is on the National Register of Historic Places. So is the one in Geneva, IL. There is a third one, in Zion, IL, that has been transformed into a coffee shop by owners who seem quite proud of the building’s history. And a handful of old stations in Georgia seem to be surviving in the 21st century.

In the comments below, Jane pointed me to the one pictured here–an old gas station in Lexington, Virginia that is now a restaurant called Pure Eats.

Who knows? Maybe there is hope yet for the neglected old guy in Cape Charles.

English Cottage Gas Station after accidentUpdate 6-2-2015: Or perhaps there is not that much hope for this fading beauty. Reader Steve in the comments below was the first to let us know that a pickup truck plowed into the gas station in the spring of 2015. Now, in June, the Cape Charles Wave newspaper has published an article about the sad turn of events. You can read it here. And here at right is the photo of the accident damage  that appears with the article. Very sad …

Update 5-12-17: The hope is back. The most recent comment below is from Laura of Tide & Thyme, an always interesting blog about regional foods and recipes. She reports that the old girl has now been purchased and folks in town are eagerly awaiting to hear what might be in store next.

Meanwhile, there is action over at the English Cottage gas station on Mason Avenue in Cape Charles as well. That station has been purchased by sisters Carol and Beth Ann Sabo, who plan to turn it into a cool little bookstore called Peach Tree Books. Here is a newspaper article about their project. And here is where you can follow their progress on Facebook–there are some cool construction photos up already!

Here is wishing good luck and god speed to both sets of owners.

–Written by Jim Duffy

NOTE: The photo at top is by Jill Jasuta Photography.

55 Comments

  1. John Griffith March 22, 2015 at 9:46 am - Reply

    The building is indeed still standing. There is a twin to this one on Mason Avenue in Cape Charles.

  2. wally widgeon March 22, 2015 at 9:55 am - Reply

    If these walls could talk in this old building they would have a many a story to tell. I was just on the shore last week and yes it is still standing proud .

  3. Amy Jones March 22, 2015 at 9:59 am - Reply

    This building is still there. I grew up in Cape Charles and still work there today. A little more fun information about this building is that it was at one time a flower shop as well. A string of business has opened in this quaint little building over the years but, unfortunately, they never stay open for very long. Here’s to hoping for a bright future for this piece of history.

  4. Ron Baker March 22, 2015 at 10:24 am - Reply

    There is another of these stations still standing and in really good shape in Strafford, Pa., on the old Lincoln Highway, called Lancaster Ave. in the area. It’s nestled up against the tracks former Pennsylvania Railroad’s “main line.”

    • Joe Paschall January 3, 2018 at 5:36 pm - Reply

      We now live near Cape Chuck…happy to see it in full repair….hope it gets put to use…also remember the one in Strafford, pa., when I was at Villanova, from 1952 to ’56…..jap

  5. mike March 22, 2015 at 11:15 am - Reply

    It is still standing. 3-22-15

  6. Sara March 22, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply

    This building is absolutely beautiful! I fell in love with it’s character. So much so, I got my wedding pictures taken with it in 2013. It’s nice to know its story!

    • secrets3 March 23, 2015 at 8:28 am - Reply

      Wedding pix location–what a cool idea, Sara!

  7. Darlene March 22, 2015 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    Interesting article. Who knew? Thanks so much for your post(s.) I guess there are (at least) two in Cape Charles. The structure in the picture you took is in better shape than the one in my shot. I remember thinking that it was such a cool building… that it is a shame to just leave it to ruin.

  8. Laura March 22, 2015 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Yes, it’s still there. Last year a woman sold sunflowers in the parking lot. I always wanted to turn it into a fudge and candy shop.

  9. Laura March 22, 2015 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    ps. there is another one in Cape Charles on the corner of Plum st. and Mason ave. It was used as a gas station until 2013 and now sits empty and for sale.

    • Ann Walker April 20, 2016 at 3:37 pm - Reply

      The Building is on the Corner of Peach St and Mason Ave..

  10. Paula champion March 22, 2015 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    the building you are talking about on the skirts of cape Charles does still stand. It will probaly be there for years to come..just thought you would like to know. Paula

  11. Jane March 22, 2015 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    The one in Lexington, VA is a restaurant and doughnut shop called Pure Eats.

    • secrets3 March 23, 2015 at 8:27 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jane. I have updated the story to include mention (and a picture) of this!

  12. Karen R. Lowe March 22, 2015 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    We were in Cape Charles in late January of this year, 2015, and the building still stood. We comment about it, namely how sad and lonely it looks, EVERY time we drive by…well, almost! My husband wants to buy it just to save it for the sake of nostalgia.

  13. David Gay March 22, 2015 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    There are two of these structures in Cape Charles. One on Stone Road and one on Mason Avenue waiting for a creative entrepreneur to restore them to their former glory.

  14. Jericia tibbs March 22, 2015 at 8:32 pm - Reply

    The English Cottage Gas Station, in Cape Charles VA is still standing and we all love it, Hope someone saves it.

  15. Laura March 22, 2015 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    I remember this place as being “Gary’s” (Bar & Grill~lol) & celebrating my 18th birthday there in 1976, when 18 was the legal drinking age. I had been getting “served” there for a while prior to this however & it just so happened that Gary was in earshot when my crazy red-headed friend Thelma hollered “happy 18th Laura”!! Gary looked at me (in horror~lol) & mouthed “18th?!” I just smiled & replied “it’s all good Gary, I’m legal now!” Ahhh, good times “back in the day” Thanks for the memory……

    • secrets3 March 23, 2015 at 8:07 am - Reply

      Great story, Laura! Definitely brought back memories of those late 70s days.

  16. Connie Morrison March 23, 2015 at 7:00 am - Reply

    Happy to say this charming building is still standing on Stone Road (Highway 184) on the way into Cape Charles.

  17. secrets3 March 23, 2015 at 8:05 am - Reply

    Hey everyone,
    Thanks so much for all of the great comments and information. I’m sorry I was late in approving them–the approvals emails landed in my spam folder for some strange reason and I didn’t find them until the next morning.
    Jim Duffy, Secrets of the Eastern Shore

  18. Marge March 23, 2015 at 10:27 am - Reply

    the building would make a lovely home. I can picture it now with an English Cottage Garden all around it and, a white picket fence.

  19. Donna Lemon March 23, 2015 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    Spent a lot of time in Gary’s. A lot of good memories and good friends. I miss the good ole days. Cape Charles has changed so much since the 70’s. Some good and not so good., but memories just the same.

  20. Kate Henderson March 23, 2015 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you for writing this story! I’ve always admired that little building every time I drive into Cape Charles. It’s really great to know the history now!

  21. Annette March 23, 2015 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    I grew up in this town it definitely still standing

  22. Sally Belote Flynn March 23, 2015 at 7:15 pm - Reply

    I was born and lived on the Eastern Shore until age 20 when I married and moved away. This building was a bar called Bruce’s in the 60’s then my uncles Fred, Joe, Alfred and my dad James (Bucky) Belote ran it as a bar for awhile. I remember going inside only once when it wasn’t open. I was young and my uncle’s made me breakfast. I have special and fond memories of this little building.

  23. MisBayHaven March 23, 2015 at 8:56 pm - Reply

    Love this! Thanks for sharing…we ride by this building all of the time and dream of the wonderful things we would love for it to be! Great to know the history. Great story 🙂

  24. P L Davidson March 23, 2015 at 9:33 pm - Reply

    There is one that is very similar in Cassville MO. It has just recently been renovated.

  25. Marjorie March 25, 2015 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    I go to the shore with my sister in law who has a home just a little way from this building and every time I see it I think that it would make a great litttle bakery.

  26. Susan March 25, 2015 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    My grandfather worked at this gas station

  27. pearlie March 30, 2015 at 5:01 am - Reply

    I grew up on the shore and I remember it once was used as an ice cream shop. I believe it was short lived but it was a beautiful concept. I would be grand to see it restored and opened as a eatery business reminiscence of the culture and times of the 50’s. Artifacts and/or souvenirs on display from Cape Charles would be a welcoming decorum to stage a historical ambience for visitors, dining guest, travelers and the community. Would love to be part of a committee to brainstorm on its restoration.

  28. Nancy March 30, 2015 at 10:00 am - Reply

    My husband and I grew up on the shore, but now live in GA. We travel to MD twice a year so our kids can see our family. Every summer trip we try and pick a new spot on the shore to explore or try a new restaurant on our way to Talbot/Caroline Counties. We did Cape Charles two years ago and I remember this little cottage! I wondered why it was there and your story totally surprised me. Great job with the FB page posts, the website and the articles. I am enjoying learning more about the shore from ya’ll, even though I lived there for 25 years; I still find it is full of history and mystery!

  29. Steve April 20, 2015 at 11:45 pm - Reply

    It is still standing but there is a little less of it. Unfortunately, a pick-up truck ran into it the other night and there is a very large hole in front of the main section. Such a shame. It has been the focus of many a painter and photographer. Sadly, this could be the beginning of the end,

    • Secrets of the Eastern Shore April 21, 2015 at 7:06 am - Reply

      That is sad news, indeed, Steve–thanks for letting us know.

    • Jen May 18, 2015 at 1:54 am - Reply

      That breaks my heart to hear that. Any further details on how much damage was incurred?

  30. Peg June 1, 2015 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    I’ve been to the one in Zion, IL, several times. Not only is the outside well maintained, but the inside was beautifully renovated for the building’s current purpose. It had to be modernized, of course, but it has a vintage look that fits with the building’s history.

  31. Elizabeth Parsons Noble June 25, 2015 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    It was Peg’s when my fathers business was right behind it (The R.A Parsons Co, Inc) That building had a railroad siding, and a packing shed behind it. It has been torn down. Peg’s was where everyone went for coffee. There was also beer, but we were early teenagers in the 50’s, and often stopped there for a soft drink on the way home from softball games.
    Eventually I worked for my Dad, and often ate lunch there. I remember that Peg always had a supply of Deviled Crabs, which were baked in small crab-shaped dishes. I am thinking there was a Mrs, Peg, who made the deviled crabs.

  32. Anne July 30, 2015 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    This building is being repaired. I haven’t been by there in a few weeks, but the brick had been replaced.

  33. Nancy G. September 29, 2015 at 7:20 am - Reply

    This building has also been painted recently. I am so glad to see it being restored. I always loved it.

  34. Howard dickerson June 13, 2016 at 7:45 am - Reply

    Delmar Delaware also has one. It is located on North Bi-State Blvd and is converted into three apartments. It is along side the 3rd wave brewery

  35. Crystal March 24, 2017 at 5:11 am - Reply

    As of today, March 24th, 2017, this building is still standing. The damage done from the car running through the front has been repaired and I cannot be certain but I believe a new roof may have been put on or at least repaired.
    This little gem was also a hopping local watering hole (a bar) back in the day as well. I would love to be able to get my hands on this place as I have always wanted to have a business in it. It’s in a great location, and let’s face it…..this place is charming and sweet!!!

    • Secrets of the Eastern Shore March 24, 2017 at 6:24 am - Reply

      Thank you very much for this update, Crystal! I am headed down that way in a couple of weeks and look forward to checking in on her ….

  36. Laura May 4, 2017 at 9:53 am - Reply

    It has been for sale, and someone recently bought it! So, we’re excited to see what the next chapter holds for this little gem on the ESVA. 😀

  37. Ellen Shaver May 15, 2017 at 9:26 pm - Reply

    I wonder how many of you Pure station enthusiasts realize that Richmond host’s a “Prototype Pure cottage built in 1921 at the corner of 25th and P in Church Hill ? I built a scale model of this building and I have shared it to many Richmond families at such places as the lewis Ginter Botanical garden’s miniatures show. You can still see it at my Facebook web page , Art Forms design

  38. Gas station near me December 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Very interesting story, thank you Secrets of the Eastern Shore.

  39. JJ January 3, 2018 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    what are the addresses or street names of both of the Cape Charles locations?

    • Secrets of the Eastern Shore January 4, 2018 at 8:50 am - Reply

      • The future home of Peach Street books is 401 Mason Avenue in Cape Charles, JJ. Here is the Facebook page where you can follow their progress:
      https://www.facebook.com/Peach.Street.Books/

      • The old station that is the main focus here is along Stone Road as you ride into town from the highway. Sorry, I don’t have an exact street number, but it will be hard to miss if head into the town that way …

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