If you’re driving through Winston-Salem, North Carolina and notice that your gas tank is in need of a fill-up, you may be tempted to pull over at the giant yellow scallop shell that dominates the corner of Sprague. The station no longer sells gas, which is bad news for your gas tank, but its fascinating history makes it well worth a stop.
The 18-foot tall shell dates back to 1930 when marketing geniuses at the Quality Oil Company, a Winston-based marketer of Shell Oil, decided to build eight gas stations shaped like giant shells to lure in customers. Joseph Glenn and Bert Bennett had launched Quality Oil in 1929, but because Shell had not marketed its products in North Carolina before the late 1920s, they knew they needed something to attract customers. The solution was a series of shell-shaped service stations sure to build buzz around Winston-Salem.
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The shells, which were inspired by the logo of the Royal Dutch-Shell Oil company, were constructed out of concrete stucco poured over a bent wood and wire framework and built to last. Seven of the hard-to-miss shells were built in Winston-Salem and one in the nearby town of Kernersville. The design of the stations was so unique it was patented on November 25, 1930. Sadly, the shell station on East Sprague Street is the last one in existence.
The shell stations were a hit, serving up gas to motorists in needs for decades. However, the good business didn’t last as competition, a new highway, and changes in traffic patterns left the gas station. After the gas station closed, the structure was used as a lawn mower repair shop. Eventually it fell into disrepair and while the iconic Shell Service Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 13, 1976 it was still a * ahem * shell of its former self.
In the mid-1990s Preservation North Carolina, North Carolina’s historic preservation nonprofit advocacy group, stepped in. The organization raised money to repair the historic site and return the landmark to its original majestic yellow condition. They liked the restored shell building so much that the organization maintained a regional office there until 2011.
While it may be 42 years old and its creators could never have imagined how great the building would look on Instagram, its charm endures and as Roadside America notes, it is still very much “a worthy photo detour.” Just fill up your gas tank before you get there.