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Local News

Goleta Man Driving Campaign to Save Historic Gas Station on Hollister Avenue

Tom Modugno launches an online petition calling for the restoration of the 1920s-era Barnsdall Rio-Grande property

Tom Modugno recalls, as a kid, sneaking into the boarded-up 1920s gas station that sits near the western end of Hollister Avenue in Goleta.

Modugno, who grew up in Santa Barbara Shores, just down the street from the old Barnsdall-Rio Grande Gas Station, remembers climbing in through the windows of the distinctive building with friends.

They would find old newspapers from the 1950s and explore the station's tiny interior.

Since then, the building, with its detailed ornamentation and bejeweled mosaic dome, appears relatively unchanged, boarded up and behind fencing warning the public not to trespass. But time and weather continue to take their toll.

"It's basically the same as it was," Modugno said Monday, standing just outside the chain link fencing that encircles the old gas station.

Most things around it have changed, though.

The station now backs up to the Sandpiper Golf Course, and across Hollister Avenue a condominium development is in various stages of construction. Bacara Resort & Spa was built just up the road, as was a new overpass over Highway 101.

Now, Modugno has begun an effort to connect the station's history with the present.

He has launched an online petition calling for the restoration of the property.

A vintage photo shows the Barnsdall-Rio Grande Gas Station closer to its prime. (Photo courtesy of GoletaHistory.com)

Last week, Modguno's signature count was several hundred, but by Monday, it had grown to more than 1,500. The goal was to get 1,000 signatures, but since they've now exceeded that, "I guess we'll go for 2,000," he said.

"Everybody I've talked to loves this building," he said. "The hard part is getting something done."

Modugno, the owner of Santa Cruz Markets who also runs Goletasurfing.com and Goletahistory.com, is encyclopedic about Goleta's history.  

While standing near the gas station, he spoke about another building that sat nearby, a restaurant named Wheeler's Inn that was doing well until a Japanese submarine attacked the Ellwood area during World War II.

A shell even lodged in the Ellwood Pier, the only mainland attack during that war, which caused business at the restaurant to plummet and eventually move to downtown Santa Barbara.

As for the gas station, it was built in 1929, and is considered the last of the Pearl Chase-inspired fuel stations, a project that the legendary Santa Barbara civic leader to took on as a beautification effort. 

Looking at the building today, her touches are obvious, and the structure looks closer to something seen in downtown Santa Barbara than the Goodland with its red tile roof, white plaster walls, blue and white tiles and Spanish colonial revival touches.

The station sits near the Ellwood Oil Field, which was extremely productive in the early part of the 20th century.

The station was abandoned by the 1950s, but got another moment to shine in 1980, when it was used in the remake of the movie "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

Santa Barbara County designated the station a historical site, but after the City of Goleta incorporated, that designation was no longer in place. The city's general plan does list the gas station as a historic resource.

Modugno has been told that the city would need to form a historical preservation committee, and then create an ordinance designating historical landmarks within city limits.

The Pearl Chase Society and Goleta Valley Historical Society have tried to designate the building in the past, but with no luck.

Ideally, Modugno sees the building restored to its former glory and opened up to the public, perhaps with a "mini-museum" inside, with photos and an exhibit explaining some of the area's history.

To get there, he's working to reach out to property owner Ty Warner, who also owns the Sandpiper Golf Course. If Warner shows interest, presumably a first step would be for someone to make an assessment of the building's condition and what it would take to restore it.

In the meantime, Modugno will continue collecting signatures, and may make a presentation to the Goleta City Council at some point in the future.

"A lot of people feel really strongly about this," he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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