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Ellwood Gas Station


If you’re driving past Sandpiper Golf course on Hollister Avenue, you can’t help but notice this distinguished looking building, standing proud amongst the weeds. An almost forgotten landmark in Goleta, the Barnsdall-Rio Grande gas station is a reminder of a simpler time. Located beside what was once a vast oil field, the old building is showing its age, but it is a very unique structure and the elegant architecture is still evident today.


It’s a product of a time when “green” was just the name of a color. Oil was big money, and the Barnsdall-Rio Grande oil company was making plenty of it at Ellwood. In 1928, an oil strike quickly made the little company a major player on the New York Stock Exchange, and almost overnight, they were the county’s biggest taxpayer.


At one time, Ellwood was the most productive oil field in the world, yielding over 100 million barrels of oil in over three decades. As the caption on this photo from 1930 states, “Rio Grande oil field at Ellwood California, famous for its exceptionally high gravity crude oil.”

uglyMost “filling stations” at the time were plain, unattractive, boxlike structures. When Pearl Chase began her program of civic improvements to the Santa Barbara area, she wanted to upgrade their appearance.


Many buildings were constructed in the Ellwood area to support the booming oil fields, but when Barnsdall-Rio Grande decided to build a filling station on the State Highway adjacent to their booming fields, they wanted it to be a showpiece. Pearl Chase was surely pleased.

old1An exclusive architecture firm out of Los Angeles was selected and the product of their efforts was completed and opened for business in 1929. A classic example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture.

old2Standing 40 feet high, the white plaster walls, blue and white ceramic tiles and red mission roof tiles made quite a flagship. In the years to come, the station would win several awards for its beauty.


And despite years of neglect, the beauty of the design still shines through.


And most of the intricate details are still hanging in there. 


In 1931 the Barnsdall- Rio Grande added a restaurant next door. It was called “Wheeler’s Inn”, named for the husband and wife that ran it. Eventually they added a family apartment and a liquor store. This location became a popular meeting place for locals and travelers alike. A fairly regular customer at the station and the restaurant was William Randolph Hearst, who made Ellwood a midway stop between Los Angeles and his little place up at San Simeon.


This is Wheeler’s son, Marshall, looking pretty pleased with his sweet Oldsmobile.

ellwood pier

In 1942, a Japanese submarine bombarded the Ellwood field, sending shells whizzing by the gas station and some landing in close proximity. Their attack caused no real damage to the facility, but it did have a devastating effect on Wheeler’s Inn. After an initial swarm of curious sightseers, fears of a repeat attack and local blackouts forced the Wheeler’s to close up shop and relocate to 37 E. Victoria St. in Santa Barbara.


The rerouting of Highway 101 was completed in 1947, bypassing Ellwood and isolating the Barnsdall-Rio Grande filling station from traffic. By the early 1950’s, the station was closed.


It did relive its former glory for one brief moment in 1980, when United Artists used it in a scene for a remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

They made it look good as new for a few days.


A while back, we found a construction crew surveying the building. They mentioned the owner restoring the building to its former glory, but so far, nothing has happened. With all the growth around it, it would seem like a good place for a business venture or a museum perhaps?

4Hopefully someone will save it from it’s slow decay and this piece of Goleta history will live on for future generations to enjoy.


 See the petition we started to help preserve this beautiful building.


* Old photos and information provided by Gary Coombs and Phyllis Olsen, from their book, “Sentinel at Ellwood”, 1985.  New photos by Goleta

Get a cool shirt with an original sketch of this building! Click here to check it out.

To learn why this historic building hasn’t been saved yet  Click Here.

Categories: Goleta History

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Tom Modugno

27 replies

  1. At one time Tex Blankenship operated that station. I still have some of the brass from one of the shells that landed just past there!

  2. That piece of property is a landmark to Goleta , there are not many left . It would be a travesty to tear it down . Please , please ,please save this this building it can be a landmark for many generations to come . Save the history there is not many physical sights left to see in California.This is one beautifull building worth preserving. Let it be!!!!

  3. My grandfather, P.G. McNeil leased there for some time. I would hate to see it go. It deserves to be preserved!

  4. Thank you so very much for spearheading this wonderful effort. It means a lot to we San Marcos/UCSB grads to preserve our heritage. Steve

  5. i am watching an antique roadshow 5/2/2011 and a lady has a patek-philipp watch that was given to her father for an oil field he discovered in southern california in the twenty’s. i froze the image to read ‘presented to f.a.fortine in appreciation of luton-bell no.1 on july 25, 1928 barnsdall-rio grande’. only because my father lived through the same era of the oil business i recognized it as a well site. and that brought me to your site. what a treat. and the picture of the attack,WOW! my mother grew up in solvang and told us this story all the time, she said everyone there heard the expoltion. so i just drug my 18yr old granddaughter in to hear me tell this story. isnt the internet great. ken (hansen) hale

  6. The blue and white square tiles gracing the windows and doorways are also seen on the Ellwood Elementary School and Santa Barbara Zoo entrances. I drive by this beautiful Barnsdall Oil structure every day. It is an architectural treasure. Does anyone know what the latest is on preservation efforts?

  7. I am an artist and I came across a picture of it with caption, in one of my art books. The artist, Glenna Hartmann, painted in pastels, this alluring, mystical abandoned building which I have fallen in love with. I must now take a trip, from my home in Fenwick Island DE to this location. Is it for sale? Does anyone know? And had it been remodeled?

    1. Gail,

      You are not alone in your enthusiasm for this old beauty. Countless artists and photographers have recorded their impressions of it and the citizens of Goleta signed a petition saying they want it saved. The owner, Ty Warner, has promised to donate it to the city of Goleta. So hopefully that will happen soon and our city leaders will come up with a suitable plan to refurbish and preserve it for all to enjoy.
      There are several pages about it on this website so have a look around,


  8. I have some memory of going with my mother to deliver dinner to my grandfather (William K Stronach) as he was loading oil to an oil tanker in the early 50’s. At that time there was only 1 short pier and the ship was off shore a very short distance. Oil was pumped to the ship and my grandfather was one of a couple guys that knew that job. We could hear from our home in Goleta the communication from the ship to the pump operator because it was done by Fog Horn. That was a several day task in that day.

  9. This gas station was one of the last impressions in the life of famous film director F. W. Murnau, 1888 – 1931 (films: Nosferatu, Faust, Sunrise, Tabu etc.). In afternoon of March 10th. 1931 his driver of the rented Packart take in petrol at this station. Only a few miles distant the fatal motor accident happend – Murnau died in the night of this day in Santa Barbara Hospital. The reason for the accident was, that Murnau `s man servant – a very unexperienced young driver – from this gas station drove the car and lost control after a few miles later.
    I think, alone of this point it will be important, that the station will be preserved and restored.

  10. sometime before they put up the fence, I stopped there and took some pictures. None as good as these. Recently, with out actual measurements I built, or tried to build several scale models of the station. Since my wife wasn’t interested in a road trip, I didn’t get back up to see the station again. I asked an acquaintance about it, as he, for work had to travel by it twice a week. He said it was gone. I was depressed, but now quite over joyed. Photos of the adjoining building would be of interest.

    1. Yes it’s still there and hopefully will be taken over by the city soon! We would love to see your model version when you get it done.
      There are no adjoining buildings, just the one solo station. take care.

  11. I found an article on this building in the April Edition of the 1979 Model Railroader magazine. I am building a 1/25th scale diorama and the plans in the magazine will allow me to duplicate it in this scale and use the building with my model cars and figures.

    Cool that this building still exists and that there are so many pictures of it on the web.

  12. Thank you all for your photos, artwork and comments. What a fascinating piece of local history!

  13. My brother Don, and I visited the Station in march 1990, because of the Japanese Submarine Deck Gun shelling near by, on February22, 1942! I read there used to be a Historic Plaque on the wall behind the station about the shelling! But, someone ripped it out and stole it! We both fell in love with it and took many photos! I never have seen anything like it! It’s my late brother and mine’s favorite site in Goleta!I found out about it in the book,”Silent Siege,” by Bert Webber ! It’s too bad Wheeler Inn was torn down,! We would have loved to eat there and see if any of the old-timers still hung around there to tell their stories of the Submarine attack!I would love to visit the Barnsdall &Rio Grande Service station one more time and I hope it will be restored and hopefully turned into a Museum! By coming back it would be a fitting memory of my brother, Don!It would very stupid to tear down this beautiful Historic building!Do everthing you can tto stop them from ruining a part of Goleta’s History and our country’s World War II History!

  14. We built a house across the freeway opposite the Elwood pier in 1970 our boys would surf by the pier the owners gave me a key so we could go on the pier and fish.
    We had the last house in Goleta as you leave going north Rancho Embarcadero.(P.S. I also was a partner and started Goleta Lumber Company.

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