BENTON PARK – Once, motorists pulled in to a neighborhood gas station at 1956 Utah Street and said, “Fill ‘er up.” Soon they’ll drive in again and say, “Fill ‘er up.”
But this time, they’ll fill their tummies, not their tanks, at a new restaurant called the Utah Station. Where mechanics once changed the oil of ’57 Chevys, neighbors from near or far will gorge on grass-fed burgers, vegan fare and pizzas.
The old gas station was brought back by Kevin King and his business partner Chris Campo, who together make up King Campo LLC. King is a Soulard resident who has renovated historic buildings since 1990.
The structure is one of 16 that won the 2019 Most Enhanced Awards at a recent program of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. It’s also one of a bunch of old gas stations in the area that restoration artists have brought back to life.
The woman who soon will open and own the restaurant is married to the man who has rented the eatery at the City Museum for 22 years. Carolyn Bauer says this gives her a chance to go far beyond the pared-back menu of a place where a sea of visitors rushes in for a bite to eat and then runs out to see the tunnels, slides, and rooftop Ferris wheel.
“We thought this would be an awesome adventure, and the City Museum, it’s pretty touristy,” said Bauer, who is renting the building from King.
Bauer has been slaving away in the heat to get the Utah Station ready to open, possibly at the end of June. That included building the bar, putting in the kitchen equipment and working on the garden.
“Every window was broken,” she said, recalling how things were before.
When the restaurant opens, customers will feast on Bauer’s creations either on one of 39 seats inside or on picnic tables resting on pavers out in front. The building has the look of a new, old-style gas station, but without the pumps or the classic Sinclair sign that once advertised the brand of gas that filled the tanks of customers’ cars.
“It’s fantastic. There used to be a lot of old neighborhood gas stations,” said Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. “Basically, all these things went vacant and have been sitting around doing nothing.”
This isn’t the first old gas station King has worked on. He was on the board of the Soulard Restoration Group when it acquired a dumpy old gas station at 1911 S. 12th Street. Once restored, it became the Soulard Station, a venue for weddings, graduation parties and other events.
It wasn’t too surprising, then, that King and Campo became involved in the effort to bring back the old station on Utah. The city asked for proposals to renovate the building, and got ideas from four different proposals.
King Campo proposed making it a restaurant. A group made up of the Benton Park Housing Corp. and former 9th Ward Alderman Kenneth Ortmann chose that King proposal.
Technically, King Campo bought the station from the city’s Community Development Administration for a dollar. In fact, the company got it for free, with the stipulation that it follows through with the plan. As part of the deal, the company also bought an adjacent piece of land owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority for a dollar.
“I felt that it should be a restaurant,” King said. “I knew I could do it. I’ve done a lot of renovation.”
Bringing the station back took a ton of work and cost about $250,000.
“It was very hard to retrofit that station for a restaurant,” King said. “We had to rebuild the whole thing.”
Fortunately, the building definitely has played a part in the neighborhood’s history.
“It was a main thoroughfare because it didn’t have trolleys,” King said. “The station was busy when it opened in 1937.”
Burgherr’s Service Station is an excellent example of a an Oblong “Box Type” modernist
filling and service station built before World War II, according to the application the Landmark Association filed in 2016 to make the building a National Register Historic Place. That application was successful.
Emmett Burgherr operated the station for decades on a two-mile strip of Utah that provided a quick route from Grand Boulevard to Broadway before the construction of Interstate 55.
King got much of the material for his project from historic sites. Pavers out front came from the area where a new facility for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is being built in north St. Louis.
Also, a friend of King salvaged granite curbing from North Broadway for the front of the building.
In addition, King got $6,000 in grants from the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Project Clear for work to keep rainwater from running off the grounds and onto the grounds. He installed a rain garden and did work around the building to have the ground absorb rain water.
He had the distinctive metal tile enamel “porcelain boxes” restored and cleaned spotlessly. The tiles were distinguishing marks of old gas stations.
All those changes mean something positive for Dale Wohler, who has lived in the neighborhood of the gas station for more than 13 years.
“It’s going to be a great asset to our neighborhood of Benton Park,” Wohler said.