A Little Love for the Congressional Exxon

Congressional Exxon (200 Massachussetts Ave. NE) is one of the oldest in the city. E.O'Gorek/CCN

These days the little gas station between Union Station and the Supreme Court is mostly known because Wolf Blitzer referenced it in a November 2021 tweet about high gas prices in the District. 

Known as the Congressional Exxon (200 Massachusetts Ave. NE), the station is known to have one of the highest costs per gallon in the city. 

But the idiosyncratic little white structure with cupola and columns is interesting on its own —though it is often overshadowed by its fancy cousin, the station located at P and 22nd Streets NW. That building, known as the Embassy Gulf Station (2200 P St. NW), was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. 

But we should give the Congressional station some credit. It shares many features with the celebrated Embassy station, and the Congressional Exxon was actually built first. And it must be about the only gas station designed in America with feedback from the Vice President of the United States.  

Let us explore the history and artistic legacy of the Congressional Service Station, a little-known treasure on the Hill. 

Initially, the Gulf Refining Company applied to enlarge a smaller service station that had been on the site at 200 Massachusetts Avenue NE as early as 1924.  

CFA reviewed the proposal to do so in March 1935, noting that the improvement had the approval of the Vice President of the United States. Architect of the Capitol David Lynn told the meeting he had talked with then-Vice President John Nance Garner and Speaker of the House of Representatives Joseph Wellington Byrns about the project. “They said that as long as the station is already there it would not be right not to let them improve the station,” Lynn relayed. 

But the CFA wanted more than an improvement, calling the design submitted for the improvement “unsatisfactory.”  

“It was thereupon decided that the Gulf Refining Company should be requested to secure an architect to design a satisfactory building,” CFA minutes note.  

A month later, the Gulf refining company submitted a design for a new service station in the Georgian style, which the CFA had apparently recommended to Gulf. It was approved with one caveat: “That the main entrance, which was designed as monumental, be simplified as to be more in harmony with the rest of the building.”  

Service Station as Civic Asset 

Both the Congressional and Embassy service stations were built by Gulf Refining, which opened the first service station in Pittsburgh in 1913. The petroleum company led the way among oil companies in attempting to construct gas stations that were architecturally pleasing. In 1933, Per Richard Leonhard Hogner (known as P.R.L.) became the Chief Architect for the Gulf Oil Corporation. He is credited with the design of the Embassy Exxon, which was built in 1936. 

The Massachusetts Avenue building, the second-oldest still operating in the District, is credited to architect J.P. Balaze, but Hogner was by then chief of Gulf Oil’s architectural department. 

The move to build more aesthetically pleasing buildings was part of an effort to get cities to welcome gas stations as automobile use rose in the 1930s. Realizing that attractive buildings were more welcome in cities, both Gulf and Hogner were focused on contextual design, on designs that reflected the character of the surrounding neighborhood. The buildings were intended to be considered “civic assets” rather than urban blight.  

That this was a concern in the District can be seen in the minutes of the March 1935 meeting of the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), a federal agency empowered by Congress to review designs that could affect the dignity of the nation’s capital. During the meeting, members reviewing the  registered concern “as to the great number of gas stations in all parts of the city (between 600 and 700 in number).” The minutes report that “the commission would like to see them [stations] segregated to particular areas.”  

The Embassy Station today, now a 24-hour Shell service facility. E.O’Gorek/CCN

Common Traits, Monumental Difference 

In the 1992 report on that building written for the National Historic Buildings survey, historian Amy Harris argues that the Embassy station is a loner. 

“If there were five other identical Gulf stations in Washington, as [Vierya] suggests, this one was not uniquely designed for this site, adjacent to the parkway,” Harris wrote. “This station is, however, the only one of its kind in the city today.” 

But maybe not precisely. The two Gulf stations are generally thought of as examples of different architectural styles– the Embassy building usually described as classical or monumental, where the Congressional building has Colonial Revival or Georgian characteristics — but they share many features.  

The basis of the design for both stations seems to have been similar: two small, monumental temples as entrance ways, crowned with cupola and with a three-door garage. 

The CFA is the reason the two differ, with their suggestion for a “less monumental” entrance for the Congressional Station. A year later, according to the District Office of Planning, CFA suggested a cupola be removed from the design for the Embassy Station.  

The three-car garage at the Embassy Station is located at a right angle to the pedimented facade. E.O’Gorek/CCN

Still, the existing differences are monumental. 

The Embassy Gulf Service Station was built out of Alabama Limestone to match the Church of the Pilgrims across the street. The station has a slate roof, Doric columns and a pediment that once housed a clock. The three-car garage is located at a right angle to the facade, lying along 22nd Street rather than built to face the boulevard along P Street NW. 

The Congressional Gas Station was constructed primarily in brick with a pitch and copper roof and is a smaller, quaint original version. The columns are shorter, mere reliefs. The gable suggests a pediment, but stops short, lacking an entablature. At the top sits a cupola, evoking Williamsburg. The station’s three-car garage sits in line with the facade along Massachusetts Avenue NE.  

A significant difference is the price tag for construction: at 980 square feet, the original Embassy Station building cost $17,500 in 1936 —that is about $380,000 today. It is also more than three times the cost of the Congressional station. The 630 square foot station cost a mere $5,530 or about $120,000 in 2022 dollars. Of course, costs would be far more today, if permits for gas station construction could be obtained. 

The Embassy Station was built in limestone to mirror the Church of the Pilgrims, located across P Street NW. Photo: E.O’Gorek/CCN

Cost of Doing Business 

But why a three-fold difference in price? Representatives for the CFA say the Embassy Row Station site was tied up with concern about the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, construction on which had only begun a few years prior after decades of legal and administrative wrangling. Located on the edge of the parkland (but just outside the boundaries of the Shipstead Luce Act) people felt that something more monumental was required than just another dirty little gas station.  

Meanwhile, over on Massachusetts Avenue NE, Gulf was replacing a gas station that existed “by right.” Once the Vice President of the United States had given permission, who was going to object?  The Capitol Hill neighborhood of the 1930s was home to many government workers, for the most part a less toney crowd than the residents of the area between Dupont Circle and Georgetown at the same time. 

In 1992, the Embassy Service Station was designated a National Historic Landmark. The process was initiated by community members as developers threatened to raze the site for apartments; in 2005, the Dupont Circle Historic District was expanded to surround it.  

District representatives hypothesize that the Congressional Service Station was the subject of less individual attention because it has been within the Capitol Historic District since 1972. That means that important original features and characteristics of the property must be retained, protecting it from being razed. Just as in 1935, changes would be subject to CFA review. 

The Higgins Service Station HABS DC,WASH,607

Still Operating 

However disparate, the historical architecture of these two service stations has stood the test of time and economic tides. Both still operate as gas stations. Gulf Oil merged with Standard Oil in 1985, when the Massachusetts Avenue Gulf Station became a Chevron. It was sold to Exxon in 1993 and subsequently to a private interest. The P Street NW Gulf Station became a Sunoco in the 1980s and currently operates as a 24-hour Shell Station. 

But neither is the oldest gas station still operating in DC. That honor goes to the Higgins Service Station. Built in 1932, it was more widely known in later years as the Watergate Exxon (2708 Virginia Ave. NW) and also the subject of news stories about its high gas prices. Today it operates as a Valero gas station. 

All three stations are part of the Joe Mamo-owned Capitol Petroleum Group and are operated by independent dealers. But that, my friends, is another story.