Historic Structures

Airplane Gas Station - Nickle Service Station, Knoxville Tennessee

Date added: June 20, 2022 Categories: Tennessee Retail Roadside Attraction

The 1930 Airplane Service Station is located on a major transportation corridor in East Tennessee, an easy pull-off for travelers. Designed by brothers Henry and Elmer Nickle, the building's unique shape was ideal for its location and a novel way to catch the eye of the driver.

In 1930, Henry and Elmer Nickle opened this gas station to coincide with the widening of US Highway 25. The gas station quickly drew the attention of both locals and tourists passing by on the highway. It is an unusual example of pre World War II mimetic architecture in Tennessee. At the time of construction of the Airplane Service Station, many gas stations were using programmatic or mimetic architecture as an easy way to differentiate themselves from their competition. As the price of automobiles decreased, more individuals were able to afford automobiles and automobile tourism became a reality for families. Gasoline, originally sold only at hardware and grocery stores, began to appear in specialized stations along the roadways. The number of gas stations grew to meet the demand of increased mobility. With the increase in the number of gas stations, competition between gas stations increased, as well.

Small independent gas station operators needed to be creative in order to survive the competition from the national corporations who were designing standardized buildings with distinctive trademarks. A trend began among gas stations across the country in which designs of the stations were made not to blend in, but to stick out. Historian Daniel Vierya has classified the designs that allowed gas stations to stick out into four broad categories. These include the Functional design with minimalist lines which accommodated the actual use of the building. The Respectable design utilizes known landmarks or architectural styles in order to draw attention to the building. The Domestic design, which encourages feelings of hospitality is another style used by gas stations owners to differentiate themselves from others. The final style identified by Vierya is termed Fantastic design, which utilizes unexpected and whimsical designs which mimic objects one would not anticipate seeing along a roadway, in order to draw the attention of customers. This creative phase of gas station design reached it peak during the 1920-1930s. The Airplane Service Station is a rare example of Fantastic gas station design in the East Tennessee region. More specifically, the building is an example of the Fantastic design style.

The Airplane Service Station is located along US Highway 25 in the unincorporated community of Powell, just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. It is a remarkable landmark in the Powell community and is often used as a marker when directions are given. The service station was designed by two brothers in order to take advantage of the new tourist corridor of US 25. The design of the service station is a reflection of Elmer Nickle's enchantment with airplanes. The Nickle brothers may have sought a patent for their design around 1936. Plans from 1931 note that H.C. and E.F. Nickle designed the station, with detailing done by Wayne Smith, a licensed engineer from Knoxville. The plans are entitled "Aeroplane Gasoline Service Buildings for Servicing Gas Consuming Motor Driven Vehicles." Originally the gas station was known as the Nickle Service station; however, the city directory began to list it as the Airplane Service Station after 1950. Texaco products were sold here when the station opened, but the gasoline brand changed over the years. This station sold only gas; no auto servicing was available. The Nickle brothers had other gas stations in the Knoxville area, but only the one Airplane Service Station. The Nickles sold the property in the 1970s and the building has been used for a variety of things, most recently as a used car lot and an office.

The Nickle brothers located this rare example of mimetic architecture along this highway because it serviced many tourists who traveled the highway from the North and Midwest to Florida in the 1930s-1950s. The Airplane Service Station, with its location along a major thoroughfare, was in a prime area to attract those customers in this new era of tourism by automobile. The highway along which the Nickle brothers located their gas station was originally a part of the eastern route of the Dixie Highway. The Dixie Highway was a project conceived by Carl Graham Fisher as a road system that would connect Ontario, Canada to Miami, Florida. He created the Dixie Highway Association in 1915 at a meeting in Chattanooga, Tennessee to oversee the construction of the ambitious project.

The US Federal highway department designated the route along which the Airplane Service Station is located as US Highway 25 and it became a connection that stretched from Detroit to Miami. After the creation of Tennessee's state highway department in 1915, the highway was designated as State Route 9. The highway was improved in the 1920s under the influence of Tennessee Governor Austin Peay who was nicknamed Tennessee's "Road-Builder Governor" because of his relentless dedication to spend federal and state money to improve the transportation system in Tennessee. Governor Peay guided his budget so that during the 1920s, road building received more money than all other state program combined. At the beginning of Governor Peay's administration, the state maintained only 382 miles of roads, but by the end of Governor Peay's administration, more than 6,000 miles of state highways had been completed. The segment, along which the Airplane Service Station sits, known locally as the Clinton Highway, was completed during Governor Peay's road-building administration.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the route became a corridor through which many travelers and tourists passed. The tourist traffic gave the Clinton Highway a unique atmosphere in the East Tennessee region. Several tourist camps were located in this area of Knox and Anderson counties during the 1940s-50s. The Nickle brothers saw an opportunity at the crest of a hill along this highway to capitalize on these passersby. In addition to the visual advertising of the building itself, the Nickles capitalized on their association with another roadside businessman, Harlan Sanders, by having business cards printed with Sanders' Corbin, Kentucky restaurant on one side and the Airplane Service Station on the other. The "Colonel", after selling his gas station in the 1960s, began selling fried chicken with a special recipe and soon built his new restaurant into the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire.

While the Nickle brothers did not create an empire like their friend in Kentucky, they did leave behind a remarkable architectural structure, which still retains its playful and friendly aura. The Airplane Service Station is a unique structure in East Tennessee. It is an example of pre-World War Il mimetic architecture, which is increasingly rare across the United States. It allows a look back into an era when automobiles were newly available to the public-at-large. The Airplane Service Station is a remarkable roadside landmark in Tennessee and is arguable the best pre-World War II mimetic design in the state.