By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Early Saturday morning this past Memorial Day weekend, Jeff Appel, the owner of the new Exxon station at Fairfax and Beverly, discreetly opened for business. The night before, he had hung two clusters of sparkling balloons from the blue-and-white marquee that advertises the pump prices, which weren’t up yet. A sagging yellow ribbon kept motorists from driving in to fill up — not that they didn’t try. Eventually, the ribbon was wadded into a bundle and tossed into a trash bin, and the prices were posted. “I’m going to be low-priced,” Appel said. “That’ll bring ’em in.”
If you know what Jeff Appel has been up to recently, that last remark sounds a bit odd. Low prices from a man who just spent a year and a half and more than a million dollars to build a gas station that resembles a Moorish palace? Well, he does have a business to run. But he’s also a man with a vision, one that he just happens to bring to life in the form of the corner gas station.
It’s nearly impossible to miss Appel’s latest creation. At night its 26-foot-high tower of crackle glass glows like the aftereffect of sunset. Faux windows are reminiscent of the work of the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. A waterfall fountain, which forms the corner of the gas station’s 1,400-square-foot “Food Mart,” is made of 24,000 scallop-shaped cobalt-blue glass tiles, crafted in Oregon at a cost of $60,000. The station’s canopy, the huge awning that shields motorists from rain and sun, is covered in 100-year-old French roofing tiles that had to be hand-drilled, one by one, so that a wire could be passed through a 3/8-inch hole that allowed the tile to be secured to other wires stretched across the roof decking — forming an enormous purse seine, or fishnet effect, of tensioned guys and pinioned clay demi-cylinders. It took five weeks to lay the tiles. Whether anyone will realize that the tiles are antique — or that their subtle beige color is drawn from the limestone soil of Languedoc or Provence and not from the iron oxide–rich deposits of, say, Atwater — doesn’t worry Appel. He installed the tiles because, he says, “I love the Mediterranean style. I love architecture.” Appel, a tall, eager man with a soft step and a hopeful, inquisitive note in his voice, says, “It’s embarrassing, really, but I put my heart into this. We build really nice gas stations.” And then he opens them, without another word.
Appel’s family runs United Oil and World Oil, which together own 110 Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Union 76 and ARCO gas stations from Ventura to the Mexican border. At the one on Cloverfield and Michigan, in Santa Monica, 10,000 pieces of fiber-optic strand lighting dangle from the ceiling of the cashier’s store. Another, at College and Ball in Anaheim, won a commercial landscaping award for its topiary. The next station, designed by the L.A. architect Stephen Kanner, will mimic a freeway onramp that whisks you up and over the station’s store and drops down into a car wash.
For the past 15 years, Appel, 44, has been building gas stations. “I go further on each one, spending more and more on them,” he says. “If you spend an extra $200,000, it’s your advertising.” To get the tower’s lanternlike lighting correct, for instance, Appel had his foreman, Frank Lopez, purchase 30 different types of light bulbs, including $90 black lights, to see which light scheme worked best. With Appel standing across the street, Lopez changed the bulbs. When that didn’t produce the desired effect, his boss asked him to paint the interior of the tower black. When that failed, the walls were re-painted white — and the bulbs switched from shining down to shining up, which was judged a success. Lopez, by the way, works year-round on new stations, logging 45,000 miles a year on his midnight-blue Ford F150.
How much did the station actually cost? “I swear to God to you, I don’t know.” Appel isn’t joshing. “I keep adding it up in my head. I know if I’m at $1.3 million, I’m okay.” Lopez, his builder, says, “There was no budget. Just get it done.”
Fairfax and Beverly is by far Appel’s most extravagant project. The concrete has been stained and re-stained with muriatic acid to produce a deep russet that looks like polished granite — a bit too much like granite, because Appel explicitly wanted to avoid that look. The grille work that guards the clerestory and tower windows was handmade by an Orange County metalworker whose first name, Giovanni, is all that Appel can tell you about him. Inside the mart, the walls are splattered with cartoonish amoebas outlined in jiggling neon. The metal-clad bathroom doors are treated with a verdigris patina; the drink-dispensing-machine counter is more crackle glass, lit from below by an intense blue light. Outside, on a wall in the alley through which cars exit the station, Appel’s muralist, someone his son discovered on the Third Street Promenade, has drawn a fanciful Mexican seaside bay, which, among the palms and bougainvillea, includes a trompe l’oeil topiary (a reference to the other gas station?) that belongs more to the Tuileries than to Puerto Escondido.