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Tuesday, June 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynnwood landmark gas station up for sale

Seattle Times staff reporter

Maybe it was the fire-engine-red Pegasus horses dancing on the roof. Or the ghosts of penny candy past. Or the soft glow of Mobil gas globes atop antique manual pumps.

Call it nostalgia, petroliana, Americana, or just a yearning for the freedom of the open road — few highway travelers pass historic Keeler's Korner gas station without feeling ... something.

Older folks remember filling up for family road trips when Highway 99 was the north-south lifeline between Canada and Mexico. Their kids recall ice cream in the general store and picnics in the woods behind the station.

A generation later, their children embraced the winged horses and anachronistic ambience of Lynnwood's only national historic landmark building.

In a city not known for its sense of place or history, on a traffic-clogged highway of burger stands, strip malls and car lots, the now-empty green and white station with an apartment on top is closely watched and cherished.

Owner Jerry Chinn received at least a dozen calls after taking the Pegasuses down for safekeeping recently. (On his third set of decorative Coca-Cola signs, he's grown weary of thievery.) Where are the horses? freaked-out neighbors wanted to know.

Now the neighbors have something new to ponder. Who will buy the station, up for sale for the first time in close to 30 years?

"It's kind of a scary thing because from time to time we get phone calls from people saying 'I want to determine the highest and best use of the building,' " said Marie Little, a member of both the Alderwood Manor Heritage Association and Lynnwood Historical Commission.

(When it comes to prime real estate — commercial-zoned Highway 99 — words like "highest use" worry preservationists. And the station's landmark listing is honorary, not protective.)

Chinn, still very attached to Keeler's Korner, is nonetheless savvy about its value.

"I'm not going to give it away," he recently told one dreamer. "But I'd like to give it to someone who will take care of it."

He would prefer a buyer who will safeguard the building's character. He'd like to see the surrounding 1-¾ acres of woodland — huckleberries, ferns and cedars just yards from the gritty highway — enjoyed and preserved.

And he'd love for the station to reclaim its historic mission as a viable business. It could be a coffee shop, restaurant, general store — no matter.

"I really would like people to be able to come here and buy things that make them happy," Chinn said. "I'd love to see it preserved so people could still stop and have their pictures taken in front of it."

There must be a gazillion folks with Keeler's Korner snapshots in their albums. Any place that's been around for 75 years — having popped up alongside one of the country's original highways in 1927 — has its stories.

According to local historians and Chinn, who detailed the history when he won national historic-landmark status for it in 1982, the station was built by G.C. Keeler and run by his family. Originally, it sold Signal and other brands of gasoline. In those days, Highway 99 roadside meant woods, not parking lots; Lynnwood meant chicken farms, not malls.

Families stopped to picnic, gas up, buy groceries, play croquet, rest and even camp at Keeler's Korner. Several aging cabins still sit on the property. The station closed in the mid-1960s, when the last family members retired.

Chinn, who moved to Alderwood Manor with his family in high school, rented the empty building in 1970. As a child, he'd worked in his grandparents' small-town country store and gas station in Illinois, and he had a soft spot for the aesthetic of "petroliana" — gasoline and auto paraphernalia.

By then, the original gas-station trappings had vanished. So Chinn picked the Mobil theme and opened an antiques store.

He restored the building and added old gas pumps. He found the original, peeling Keeler's Korner sign in the bushes behind the station and hung it out front.

Drivers-by donated gas collectibles. Chinn eventually collected counters, display cases, canned goods with old labels, potbellied stoves, signs, gas lights, oil bottles and even a 1946 Mobil tanker truck.

In 1976, he bought the building and soon after closed his store, moving out several years later. Over the years, another antiques shop, serving coffee, and a flower store have been housed downstairs, with renters living upstairs. The last business built doors and molding.

Now an art director for TV commercials, Chinn has used the station for photo shoots. It's been featured in ads and gas-station books, he said, and painted countless times.

Last month, he got a plaque from the city of Lynnwood for getting the station on the historic register.

But the traffic and years have had their way with the adjoining property, now littered with junk. And Chinn, who's spruced the station up with paint and Windex, believes it's time to pass it on — "as is," he jokes.

He's had many offers. But he's never entertained any, until now.

"I could have sold it the first year I had it. A guy wanted to put a Denny's in," he said with a laugh. "Obviously, I'm emotionally attached to it. But I've been neglecting it and I feel bad about that.

"It shouldn't be sitting here vacant."

If the drop-ins are any indication, it won't sit long. Whenever Chinn's there, people pop in to get the lowdown or pitch their visions. Agents and developers hover, but he hasn't set a price. He's still up for talking dreams and nostalgia.

"This thing captures people's attention and hearts," he said. "To them it represents something from the past — a good time. It's travel and a roadside experience."

Paysha Stockton can be reached at 206-464-2752 or pstockton@seattletimes.com.

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