BLOOMINGTON — Elmo Quinn had a clever solution when business at his downtown Bloomington service station was slow.
"I could just go over there and say a prayer that I got another customer very quickly," Quinn joked, pointing to Holy Trinity Church, which sits across from the Shell gas station at the corner of Main and Chestnut Street he operated for decades.
That memory, hundreds of other stories and photos will soon be all Quinn, 81, has left to remember the station by. Nearly 80 years after it was built, the station is slated for demolition.
The move was blessed this month by the Bloomington Historic Preservation Commission, which voted unanimously that it wouldn't advocate against or delay the demolition because the building had lost its historic significance.
"It had been significantly remodeled in the 1980s, and that remodeling compromised the original (Walter) Darwin Teague architectural design," commissioner Greg Koos explained.
The 1,579 square-feet, one-story service station was opened in 1941 by Quinn's father and uncle, Elmo C. and Eldon Quinn, under the Texaco brand. It featured two bays and a sleek, modernist design with white brick and green trim.
It underwent a remodel to a Matawan-style "blend-in" design — identifiable by the trapezoidal roof detail — and took final form in 1985 as a Shell station.
The structure is cited as a Route 66 resource in the 2021 Bloomington Community Preservation Plan because it reflects pinnacle architecture related to automobile history.
Although that architecture has been altered, Koos said he will still regret seeing the station, or any currently standing structure in downtown, turn to pieces.
"I regret seeing buildings demolished not just because of the historic reasons, the historic value, but because they represent what's called embodied energy," Koos said.
"At time when need to be conscious of resources and hold back the forces of climate change, the preservation of a solid building is an important policy that communities need to embrace," Koos added. "The greenest building is a building that’s standing."
For Quinn, the pending knock-down carries a complex mix of responses, too, albeit for different reasons.
"Sometimes I drive by just to make sure it's still there," Quinn said. "I just hope they notify me in the morning before they put the first hole in it. It'll be sad."
The structure is the product of a multi-generational business and a monument to an analog, personal service that barely exists in an automated, digital world.
Quinn began working there in the 1950s, bought the business in 1978 and had help from his sons, Brian and David. He closed it at the end of 2013, and removed the pumps two years later. It has sat vacant since then.
He sold the lot the station sits on to the church in 2019, netting $300,000. The church plans to use the area, and a neighboring lot also purchased for $300,000 from Illinois Wesleyan University, for a parking lot.
Across the six decades, Quinn continued to provide full service by pumping gas, washing windows and checking engine fluids. Customers were regularly greeted with a warm smile and a friendly greeting.
"I don't miss the 80 hours a week, but do miss the people," Quinn said.
That attention to personalized service and "patience" with customers are what's missing from modern gas stations, Quinn said.
"A lot of (employees) are very friendly," Quinn said. "Some of them are there just for the job."
But Quinn also empathizes that working at a gas station can sometimes be difficult, or unsafe.
He experienced a handful of robberies while in business. The most memorable was a late-morning ambush on a Saturday in May 2002.
Quinn was working by himself and after answering a question from a pair of customers one of the men pulled out a gun and shoved it into Quinn's left side.
Quinn said he reached back and grabbed the gun, because he thought it was a prank. But once he felt the metal of the gun, he knew it was serious.
"I grabbed hold of the gun — I'm lucky he didn't shoot me — and we walked over to the desk and he emptied the drawer out, then took off running," Quinn recalled.
Weeks later, the same suspects were arrested after another robbery in Normal.
"They said 'We got him dad,'" Quinn said, referencing his sons, who work in law enforcement. "I still remember that phone call."
Another fearful moment came the year before Quinn retired, when a woman came into the store with a carving knife and attempted to rob him.
Quinn said he reached for a nearby hammer and slammed it against the counter. Alarmed, the suspect fled without any cash.
"The one with the gun, after I thought about it, really started to think this could have been bad," Quinn said.
But there was also a lot of good at the gas station. When Quinn was younger, his father and uncle, who were identical twins, would fool with customers.
"Dad would go out and talk to the people, and my uncle would go around and do the windshields," Quinn said. "People would just be looking back and forth and not realize they were twins. I would just sit there and laugh and laugh."
Those relationships are what Quinn said he misses the most about the business. And he'll continue to cherish them, he said, whether the station stands or not.
"It's been a privilege," Quinn said. "Whether a stranger or a regular, it was an honor for me to do it."
Contact Timothy Eggert at (309) 820-3276. Follow him on Twitter: @TimothyMEggert