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Santa Barbara’s Bygone Beauty Contests for Gas Stations

Pearl Chase Spearheaded Countywide Competitions to Encourage Beautification of Service Stations


Beginning in 1931, the Plans and Planting Branch of the Community Arts Association held a number of countywide competitions in a drive to encourage oil companies to improve the appearance of their service stations. During the 1930s, the chair of the Plans and Planting Branch was Pearl Chase, whose name became synonymous with community activism.

The Community Arts Association, founded in 1922, was made up of four branches, Music, Drama, the School of the Arts, and Plans and Planting. The purpose of the Plans and Planting branch was “to suggest and consider plans for the improvement and beautification of the city … to serve as a clearinghouse for discussion … which shall enhance the beauty and charm of the city.” Plans and Planting was a major force behind the movement to remodel buildings in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and thus give Santa Barbara a unified architectural look. It sponsored competitions of small home designs in cooperation with the national Better Homes Movement in America. The Planting Committee sponsored flower shows, organized children’s groups to plant gardens, and also sponsored tours of notable gardens in Santa Barbara, Hope Ranch, and Montecito, all geared to inspire and inform the public.

Chase became chair of Plans and Planting in 1927. One of her special interests was the beautification of the area’s roadways. She was instrumental in eliminating unsightly billboards along the South Coast. Beginning in the mid-1920s, Plans and Planting handed out awards to owners of buildings the committee felt were particularly outstanding. For example, among the buildings bestowed with an honor in 1926 were the San Marcos Building and St. Anthony’s Seminary; winners in 1927 included the Biltmore Hotel and La Cumbre Country Club.

Service stations were part of this mix. In 1926, the Standard Oil Station on the Coast Highway in Montecito was singled out, but there was no separate competition just for service stations. That changed in 1931.

In March, a Competition for Improvement in Appearance of Service Stations in Santa Barbara County, California was announced, in cooperation with various garden clubs, chambers of commerce, and other agencies. Categories included landscaping, improvements in landscaping, and appearance of buildings and signage. Cash prizes ranged from $40 down to $15. Certificates of Award would also be bestowed on participants. The committee traveled to inspect and photograph each entry. Significantly, the competition included the entire county from Santa Maria to Carpinteria.

Competitions were held in 1931, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, and 1938. In 1937, 124 stations up and down the county were surveyed. “Highest Class” stations received four stars. Overuse of signage was discouraged, as was the utilization of outdoor racks for oil products. Some stations were downgraded for not keeping tools in good order. Signage was weighted as 35 percent of the overall score, while landscaping accounted for 30 percent. Eleven stations received the highest rating while at the other end of the scale four received honorable mention.

Chase worked hard to get full cooperation from station owners. She wrote to the national headquarters of oil companies to ensure compliance, the letters often accompanied by photographs of stations she considered substandard. By the end of the decade, Santa Barbara County was dotted with service stations that were truly architectural gems. As Pearl Chase argued, “Good style is good business,” and big oil listened.

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