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The Curious History Of LA's Gas Station Topiary Art

Topiary art outside the Mobil station at Melrose and Highland (Image capture: Apr 2019/Copyright 2019 Google)
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Outside the Mobil gas station at the corner of Melrose Avenue and Highland Avenue in Hollywood, lush green animals greet customers near the sidewalk.

They're topiaries -- art fashioned from plants -- and they appear at a handful of local gas stations owned by United Pacific, formerly known as United Oil.

The fauna-based flora-critters are eye-catching, so much so that an anonymous reader wrote in to ask LAist, "Who makes the gas station topiary art I see around the city?"

We have harvested you an answer. And it begins, as so much does, with a burst of inspiration in the 1990s.

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At that time, Jeff Appel, the son of United Oil's then-president, was refurbishing one of the company's gas stations in Corona Del Mar. In the course of his comings and goings, he would frequently drive past what he called "a topiary place."

"I said to myself, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if I could have them do a Pegasus horse?'" he told the Los Angeles Times in 2000.

He convinced his father to let him go through with it (the Pegasus is Mobil's mascot), and a topiary legacy was born.

Appel began adding the art where he could, and his vegetation-based menagerie soon expanded to include rabbits, squirrels, snakes, dinosaurs, tigers and monkeys, according to the Times.

But his vision wasn't limited to plant animals.

Appel also started installing expansive murals at his refurbished stations. He took inspiration from Googie architecture. He installed fanciful solar panels. And he even commissioned some trompe l'oiel paintings, according to the New York Times.

''I discovered I had a knack I never realized I had,'' he told the paper.

United Oil was purchased by Fortress Investment Group in 2014, and renamed Union Pacific. A representative from the company told LAist that the topiary art still decorating the outskirts of many of their gas stations is left over from ten to 20 years ago, and is now just maintained.

The spirit with which they were installed is being maintained, too, on social media. The art makes occasional appearances on Twitter and Instagram.

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