April 26, 2018

Clearer in Retrospect: The Rehabilitation of a Historic Houston Gas Station

  • By: Nicholas Som
The exterior of Retrospect Coffee Bar

photo by: Retrospect Coffee Bar

The building that now houses Retrospect Coffee Bar operated as a neighborhood gas station for around 50 years.

When restaurateur Sharon Haynes thinks back to the days before the historic gas station on the corner of La Branch and Alabama Streets in Houston's Third Ward was renovated and became Retrospect Coffee Bar, she remembers the artwork. For years after it was boarded up and vacated, the exterior of the former Gulf Oil station was decorated with inventive murals that turned heads with their bold colors and designs.

“The station would catch everybody’s eye driving by,” Haynes says, “not only because it’s an amazing little structure, but also because it was constantly reinventing itself through art.”

The murals were informally curated by the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, which emphasizes cultural diversity and social justice in its exhibitions. Located right across the street, the gas station presented an opportunity for artists to showcase their talents in a more accessible fashion. No single mural ever took up permanent residence, but that was part of the station’s appeal—its ever-changing nature added a special energy to the Third Ward.

A mural at Retrospect Coffee Bar.

photo by: Retrospect Coffee Bar

Artwork informally curated by the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, located right across the street, often decorated the station during its decades of vacancy.

A mural at Retrospect Coffee Bar.

photo by: Retrospect Coffee Bar

The station adorned with a Soviet-themed mural.

Now the building has found a different way to energize the neighborhood; instead of art, it now harnesses the power of caffeine in its cozy 297-square-foot space. Retrospect Coffee Bar opened in May of 2017, serving up coffee, crepes, and craft beers. As its name suggests, Retrospect’s past is an integral part of the coffee shop it is today.

Built in the 1920s, the small fueling station housed the first Kelvinator in the city of Houston. A precursor to the modern refrigerator, Kelvinators allowed idle customers to enjoy a cold beverage while waiting for their automobiles to fuel. This made the station a popular destination. However, its novelty eventual wore off with the emergence of gas stations with full-service convenience stores. Gulf Oil abandoned the station, and after a brief stint as an auto repair shop, the building was shuttered for the long haul sometime in the 1980s.

A historic photo of Retrospect Coffee Bar.

photo by: Retrospect Coffee Bar

A historic photo of opening day at the Gulf Oil station in 1921.

The exterior of Retrospect Coffee Bar.

photo by: Retrospect Coffee Bar

The cross-lattice windows from the station's earliest days have been recreated.

Haynes took notice soon after the murals began popping up in the mid-2000s. Coincidentally, the lot that the station sat on was owned by friends of hers. They approached Haynes in 2013 about managing a beer garden that would be placed on a different part of the parcel, and though she had too much on her plate to take on the job, she couldn’t help but inquire about the gas station.

“[Older buildings] are the places that have the bones and the character that’s so hard to create in a new piece of construction,” says Haynes. “That’s something that Houston was kind of late to the game on, but finally we have developers that aren’t just tearing down stuff to put another beige strip center in, and that’s kind of exciting.”

Fortunately, the owners were willing to sell. Haynes assembled a team of managing partners, including her husband Chas, and the project was underway.

For Haynes, her husband Chas, and the rest of the group, retaining as much of the station’s original character as possible was one of the top priorities. They replicated its distinctive cross lattice-paned windows, many of which had been destroyed, and salvaged and reglazed the ones they could. Its original bathroom tiles and rustic brick interior were also retained. And while its shiplap drop ceiling had to be removed, the wood was reused in several other parts of the build-out, from new countertops to connecting hallways.

On the whole, Haynes was impressed with how the structure had held up over the years. “It’s an amazingly built gas station. The functionality of it wasn’t great [when we acquired it], but the actual, physical building was very sound,” she says.
The interior of Retrospect Coffee Bar.

photo by: Retrospect Coffee Bar

The new interior of Retrospect Coffee Bar, with the food preparation space of the attached shipping container visible in the background.

Instead, the bulk of the work in the Retrospect rehabilitation involved equipping the station with utilities, and navigating the numerous regulations set forth by the city of Houston. The building lacked all plumbing and electrical systems, and Houston’s weather conditions had increased the challenge of getting up to code.

“Houston has had so much trouble with flooding over the last decade or so that the requirements for drainage have gotten huge,” says Haynes. “So by the time we bit this project off, there were a lot of hoops we had to jump through, a lot of expensive things we had to do that we did not anticipate.”

Some additions needed to be made to accommodate its new use, as well. Haynes and company needed extra room, so they touched up a used shipping container and connected it to the station, giving them an additional 360 square feet of food preparation and bathroom space.

Four years after the idea’s inception, Retrospect Coffee Bar opened its doors, and has been thriving ever since. Haynes has even tossed around the idea of bringing art back to the building in conjunction with the Station Museum, perhaps incorporating the shipping container. Though no installations have materialized yet, it’s clear that Retrospect has no intentions of losing sight of its artistic past.

“When you see something that’s been forgotten by time and restored, people just respond to that,” Haynes says. “They love that. Everyone loves a good story.”

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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