As far as gas stations go, the Barnsdall-Rio Grande building in Goleta is a real beaut. At least it was 86 years ago.
Back then, and before it was abandoned in the early 1950s, the tiny depot’s stucco and tile set between hand-carved molding shone bright white and blue for customers puttering down the coast. A mosaic dome topped off the showcase design, which was inspired by the efforts of Santa Barbara matriarch Pearl Chase to spruce up the area. Now the gas station is an abandoned and crumbling — but still proud — relic of a time not so long ago when Ellwood’s shores bristled with oil piers and Hollister Avenue was Highway 101.
A big question mark materialized in 2003 when Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner bought the Sandpiper Golf Course property on which it sits. Locals were worried he would tear the station down. One especially concerned citizen started a petition — that’s since been signed by 3,000 people — to save the historic structure, but he got no response from the famously reclusive Warner.
This Thursday, to the delight of many, representatives with Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts announced during a press conference that the property is being turned over to the City of Goleta so it can be restored and preserved. City Councilmember Roger Aceves thanked Warner for his “generous contribution” and said he was “thrilled” with the outcome of their negotiations that dated back to 2009. “This is like no other,” Aceves said as he gestured at the station behind him. “It serves as an important gateway to Goleta.”
Bill Medel, who handles project development for Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts, said later that he hopes to complete the legal transfer by the end of the year. The turnover timing made sense as the company concentrates on other renovation projects like the Montecito Country Club, he said. In Santa Barbara County, Warner also owns the Biltmore Hotel, the Coral Casino, and San Ysidro Ranch.
Aceves explained historians would soon conduct an assessment of the 40-foot-tall, 500-square-foot station and then develop a restoration plan. The work and how it will be financed is scheduled for discussion at the Goleta City Council meeting on June 30.
Tom Modugno was there on Thursday for the announcement. He had led the charge to preserve the Ellwood landmark. “Obviously, I’m stoked,” he said of the news. Modugno has lived in that area of Goleta all his life, he explained, and he was inspired to save the station once he saw how the city is changing, “and maybe not for the better.”
“I could see it getting knocked down and turned into a strip mall if no one did anything about it,” Modugno said. Right across Hollister Avenue, construction is underway on the 101-unit Haskell’s Landing housing complex, and just down the road, more development has begun.
Modugno called Warner’s gift “unbelievable” and a “huge first step.” Now, he said, is when the real work starts. Modugno is cautiously optimistic that Goleta will devote the time and funds needed to restore the station to its former glory, but he said it could take awhile for the project to jump through all the necessary hoops. On Thursday, Goleta Mayor Paula Perotte took a moment to personally thank Modugno for all his efforts.
Because the station is so small, Modugno went on, it’s unlikely it could house any kind of commercial venture. (The second story used to hold a water tank but is now just an empty bell tower of sorts.) Instead, he hopes the building will be turned into a mini-museum with accompanying educational kiosks. No matter what happens, Modugno is just glad the station won’t be razed. “It’s like our oldest citizen,” he said.
In 1928, a year before the station was built, the Barnsdall-Rio Grande oil company, a small player at the time, struck it rich with its discovery of the Ellwood Oil Field. The field soon became one of the most productive in the world, yielding over 100 million barrels of oil in just three decades. The Ellwood filling station was the company’s first, and its executives wanted to give real flair to the building near the entrance to their empire of crude on the shores below.
Architects out of Los Angeles were hired to design the property, and they made sure to include Spanish Colonial elements so familiar to the area, like a red-tile roof. In 1931, Barnsdall-Rio Grande added a restaurant and liquor store next door. William Randolph Hearst reportedly liked to stop there on trips between Los Angeles and his San Simeon castle. The 1942 Japanese attack on that stretch of coast forced the restaurant to close, and when the highway was rerouted a decade later, the filling station also shuttered.
The station was resurrected for a short time in 1980 for the filming of The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. For more on the station’s past, visit Modugno’s website, goletahistory.com.
Now that Modugno’s original petition appears to have done its job, he may start a new one. “Now we need to raise money,” he said.