Mimetic or programmatic architecture became a nationwide craze by the 1930s, when automobiles became affordable to the middle classes. Some 27 million American automobiles were registered in 1929, the same year that Joe H. Glenn Jr. and Bert L. Bennett of Quality Oil became the first Winston-Salem area affiliates for the Shell Oil Company. Seeking to create eye-catching and self-advertising service stations, they based their mimetic design on the scallop-shell logo of the company. The two men received a patent for their design on November 25, 1930. Glenn and Bennett located their service station in a residential neighborhood south of downtown on a major east-west artery. The Shell Service Station at the corner of Sprague and Peachtree streets is the only surviving example of the original seven scallop-shell–shaped service stations built for $5,000 apiece in the Winston-Salem area by builder Frank L. Blum.
The upright shell-shaped building is twenty feet across at its widest point and eighteen feet high. Made of concrete stucco poured over a bent greenwood and wire mesh frame, both the front and back of the building have the deep and wide grooves and ridges of a scallop shell. A single glass door is centrally placed on the front of the building while a single six-over-one sash window is set deeply on either narrow side of the scallop shell. Within the shell is a fully articulated framed room that was, in fact, constructed prior to the external shell form. Adjoining the rear of the shell is a restroom with a single window and separate entrance door. A small brick chimney is located between the main building and rear restroom. The entire structure was originally painted the brilliant orange-tinted yellow of the Shell Oil Company logo.
Word of the Winston-Salem shell-shaped service stations must have spread to the parent company because in 1935 a giant Shell building appeared at the California-Pacific International Exposition in San Diego. An enormous piece of programmatic advertising, the temporary giant shell served as the Shell Information Service Headquarters for the world’s fair. That same summer, Shell service stations across the country gave away free maps with both directions to the fair and their filling stations.
The Shell Service Station continued to pump gas until sometime in the 1950s. It then served as a lawn mower and engine repair shop until the 1970s, when local enthusiasts and Preservation North Carolina came to its rescue. A $50,000 campaign was undertaken to stabilize and restore the service station to its original scallop-shell–shaped glory. Quality Oil contributed vintage Shell gasoline pumps, which featured scallop-shell–shaped glass light globes. The Historic American Engineering Record documented the building in 1975 and the following year it became the first single filling station to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places; its importance as an example of mimetic architecture justified its inclusion despite its being less than the usual 50 years old. The Shell Service Station is now operated by Preservation North Carolina as a museum and satellite office.
Andrews, J. J. C. The Well-Built Elephant and Other Roadside Attractions: A Tribute to American Eccentricity. 1st ed. New York: Congdon and Weed, 1984.