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Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station in small Minnesota town to be sold

CLOQUET - For the first time in its 58 years of existence, Cloquet's R.W. Lindholm Service Station -- more commonly known as the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station -- will be owned by someone not descended from its original owners.

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CLOQUET – For the first time in its 58 years of existence, Cloquet's R.W. Lindholm Service Station - more commonly known as the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station - will be owned by someone not descended from its original owners.

But the new owners are certainly not strangers to the iconic gas station. In fact, Chris Chartier reckons he's worked there longer than anyone and probably knows its secrets as well as the Lindholm-McKinney family that owned it all these years.

Chartier, who has been working at the station since 1982, will be the majority partner with Don McKay, another mechanic, as they're slated to become the station's new owners. It will remain a gas station, one of the last two or three in the area to offer full service for its customers through rain, sleet and snow. The highly regarded Best Service auto repair business will continue, too.

It also will remain a tourist destination, and that's just fine with the prospective new owners. They're used to it.

"There's a lot of people that come here to look," Chartier said. "They don't all buy gas, but many do. But we do spend a lot of time talking to them."

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Just then a man in a pickup truck pulled up and parked in front of the station, clambering out to take several photos before he drove away.

McKay said he was surprised by how many people and cameras they see in a week.

"I didn't think it was that big of a deal," said McKay, who started at the station about a year ago. "But people from all over - France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Australia and the U.S., of course - come to see the only gas station Frank Lloyd Wright ever built. I didn't know that, but they know it."

The gas station, completed in 1958, sprouted from the architect's utopian urban plan known as Broadacre City, which detailed ideas for an entire city and which never came to fruition. Thus, when Ray Lindholm approached him about rebuilding a Phillips 66 gas station at the corner of Highway 33 and Cloquet Avenue, the aging Wright jumped at the chance.

The gas station has a unique design, with a glass-enclosed observation deck over the main office (accessible to tourists), topped off by the large and distinctive cantilevered roof. The roof is covered with copper shingles sporting a green patina holding up a spire, which now proclaims both the station's famous designer and the Lindholm name. On a more practical note, the station also includes four service bays, one of which used to be a car wash.

Chartier said the car wash was a lot of extra work to maintain, and he was happy when his brother Terry, who retired last year, changed it to another service bay.

Terry had been managing a Standard station in town when the McKinney family approached him about managing their station in 1982. Chris was just a teenager then, learning his mechanical and business skills on the job from his brother.

Chris said he liked the move, not so much because the service station was designed by a famous architect, but because the shop area was bigger, with more racks and a more open design.

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Wright believed gas stations should play an increasingly important role in society and be well-designed.

"Each station that happens to be naturally located will grow into a well-designed, convenient neighborhood distribution center, that will develop naturally into a meeting place, restaurant, restroom or whatever else will be needed," Wright once said, according to a 1991 story in the Minnesota Calls magazine.

Wright also designed a home for the Lindholm family named Mäntylä, which is Finnish for "house among the pines." Joyce (Lindholm) McKinney was the spark that led to both the gas station and the home, after she persuaded her parents, Ray and Emmy Lindholm, to engage Wright's services.

After the Wright-designed home was donated, disassembled and shipped piece-by-piece to a nonprofit organization in Pennsylvania earlier this year by the youngest McKinney brother, Peter, because of encroaching urban sprawl and the lack of a buyer, some Cloquet residents wondered if the gas station would be next to leave town.

Not to worry.

"Our preference was for a local person," said Mike McKinney - one of the four older McKinney brothers who own the gas station until the new owners complete the financial transaction. He said there were four other interested parties, but most of them were from out of state.

McKinney also explained that the service station - unlike the house - is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which probably would have prevented the structure from being moved to another location.

McKinney said that when he and his brothers decided it was time to sell off the family businesses, including Best Oil and the Little Store chain of convenience stores, the property that generated the most interest was the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station. Two of the other interested parties were architects, one who built his own model of the station, and a third potential buyer wanted to put a different kind of retail business in the service station. Another person from California who McKinney knows personally simply likes Frank Lloyd Wright designs and had the money to spare.

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The decision to sell all the parts of the family business was driven by two factors, McKinney said. The brothers were getting older, and there was no fourth generation that wanted to take over the businesses. Also, it was the right time to sell their convenience stores because the market was good for sellers.

The gas station is one of the final pieces of the family business, in addition to the Best Oil buildings on Avenue B and several lots nearby.

In preparation for the station's 50th anniversary in 2008, the structure was renovated.

"It's in much better shape than it was before," McKinney said, noting that the service station design originally included a long wall on the east side with a sign that Mike McKinney said had been sitting in storage for decades. The family had the sign refurbished in 2010 and placed on a pedestal of similar design, which now sits near the corner of the lot.

"I'd say it's 'industrial art,' " McKinney said.

Chartier noted that his attorneys are concerned about the adjacent property on Second Street that was home to D's Fabric Care from 1966 to 1995. The property was proposed for inclusion on the state's Superfund priority list by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency earlier this year after perchloroethylene was detected in soil gas at levels more than 35,000 times what is allowed under regulations for commercial properties in the area.

McKinney said the station itself has been given a clean bill of health, always a concern with gas stations and auto repair facilities because of past transgressions.

Although the gas station was appraised at $380,000, neither seller nor buyer wanted to share the final agreed-upon purchase price.

"We're very happy," McKinney said. "It was time for us to move on. And we do like that it will be used for what he (Wright) designed it for. It's unique in the world."

Related Topics: CLOQUET
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