Monday, May 07, 2007

The Barnsdall-Rio Grande Service Station

I've always admired the architecture of this old abandoned service station, located on West Hollister Avenue in Goleta, out west of Santa Barbara. It was built in 1929, and must be one of the few, if not the only, remaining example of a service station built in the Mission Revival style so popular in the area during that time period.

Of course, this building has another hook in regional history besides its architectural style. It is located just north of the Ellwood Oil Field (the field is between it and the beach) that was active from the mid-1920s up until the 1960s. On the night of February 23, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced off the beach here, unlimbered its deck gun, and shelled the oil field. You can read more about it here. The shelling caused little damage, but the night watchman ran to this station, location of the nearest telephone, to report the attack.

The report of the Ellwood shelling set off a panic among air defense forces in Los Angeles, with anti-aircraft units banging away at "sightings" of non-existent Japanese aircraft. This is sometimes referred to as The Battle of Los Angeles.

As the story goes, the captain of the I-17 had visited Ellwood earlier in the 1930s when he served as the captain of an oil tanker. While on a tour of the oil field, he fell into some prickly pear cactus with an irreparable loss of face. The shelling was his revenge.

Interestingly, the shelling at Ellwood was the first of three Japanese submarine attacks on the continental United States during the war. On the night of June 21 -22, 1942 a submarine surfaced off the mouth of the Columbia River and shelled coastal artillery units at Ft. Stevens, Oregon. Finally, a submarine sea-plane tender surfaced off the Oregon coast in September, 1942, and launched a seaplane that dropped incendiary bombs on Oregon forests in an attempt to start forest fires. This and the Ft. Stevens attack caused negligible damage.

For those of you who may be interested, I found this site dedicated to "Petroliana" or gasoline station history (really!) that has more about the Barnsdall-Rio Grande station, including some period photos taken from a pamphlet written about it in 1985. The station has another claim to fame - it was used as a set in the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

As to Matt's question about the station's future prospects, I will have to say that I am not sure who the current owner is. The station is a County Landmark, which gives it some consideration under the California Environmental Quality Act. Though it hasn't been evaluated to my knowledge, I can't imagine it not being eligible for the California Register of Historic Resources and/or the National Register of Historic Places. It doesn't appear to be in the path of development. The Sandpiper Golf Course is immediately to the south of its location. A small housing development (full disclosure: I helped write the EIR) is going in on the old Ellwood Oil Field southeast of it, but it will not affected by that. The area is zoned mixed residential and open space, and knowing how anti-growth the south coast of Santa Barbara County is, I'd say the prospects for its future preservation are pretty good.


Matt Mullenix said...

Amazing. What will happed to the service station? Is it slated to be a Wal-Mart?

Anonymous said...

"one of the few, if not the only, remaining example"

Um, the modifier of "example(s)" is "few" (and "only"), not "one".

"Of course, "

Hackneyed and, in this case, grossly misused.

Mary said...

I have only the vaguest notion of the attacks on California, but vividly remember having blackouts in Portland, OR, related to the Columbia River shelling. I was a pre-schooler with two younger brothers and my mother fed the baby in the night. We had a lightbulb covered with black paint that had been scratched just enough to let a few gleams through. After the war we couldn't walk on the beaches because incendiary bombs followed the Japanese currents and washed up. Some came as air balloons but never really managed to set a forest fire as intended. Sentries were still posted in lookouts through the Korean War.

Steve Bodio said...

Fantastic, Mary-- more, please!

Anonymous said...

The Gas Station is the property of Sandpiper Golf Course.

Reid Farmer said...

If Sandpiper owns the station that's good news. Ty Warner, who made his billions as the originator of Beanie Babies, owns the Sandpiper Golf Course. He is a part-time Santa Barbara resident who owns a number of major properties there and so far seems to have a good record of respecting historic properties. I could see his private Boeing 737 parked at the airport from my old office window.