In the late 1920s, the price of gas was 20 cents per gallon and car owners spent lazy Saturdays cruising in their Ford Model T’s and Roadsters.
In Bethesda, Eastham’s fueled them up, serviced them and tuned their engines.
Today, Eastham’s continues to service cars and fill gas tanks — though it soon could be nudged out by a mixed-use apartment building, plans for which include first-floor retail, a cyber cafe and sun deck.
A Bethesda staple since 1929, Eastham’s Exxon Servicenter will stop selling gas Sept. 30.
Washington Property Company, a developer and property management company based in Bethesda, is proposing to replace the station with up to 145 multifamily units, according to Montgomery County Planning Department documents. Plans are to be discussed by the Planning Commission on Nov. 1.
The station, which sits at 7100 Wisconsin Ave.,offers gas, repairs and a glimpse into Bethesda’s past. The station has called the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Leland Street home for 83 years, moving only when the site expanded to include the parcel next door.
In an era when gas station attendants rarely leave the cash register, full service at Eastham’s comes complete with window washing, tire pressure check, and a look under the hood.
The showroom features a leather couch and walls covered floor to ceiling with awards, clippings from old articles — the station has been noted in The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and other publications — and photos of historic Bethesda.
A decommissioned cigarette machine offers candy, and garbage cans still say Esso, a former brand name for ExxonMobil in the U.S.
“We always give excellent customer service, and that is why we have built up the business we have,” said General Manager R. Steven Embrey, who has worked alongside Service Adviser Tom M. Lake for nearly 30 years.
Eastham’s customers know Lake, 49, as one of the guys they talk to about their repairs. He started as a gas station attendant in the early 1980s, when full-service gas was a two-person job and employees were expected to run, not walk, to every car.
Lake has known some of his customers since they were children, dragged to the shop by their parents.
“A lot of the kids we watched jumping over the couch now bring their kids,” he said. “We’re just here to help them out.”
The station has been in the Eastham family since 1929. It was taken over by the younger Eastham, Bob, in the 1960s after his father, Robert Eastham Sr., had a heart attack.
Bob died two years ago, at 71, but his employees have tried to live up to his exacting standards.
The former Marine could not stand fingerprints on windows and was in the station every day cleaning bathrooms, picking up trash and maintaining landscaping, Embrey said.
His efforts helped the station score a series of customer service awards from the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association. The station was taken out of the running after it won several years in a row, and the award was renamed in honor of Robert Eastham Sr., Embrey said.
Plans by Washington Property Company for the site include 15 percent moderately priced dwelling units and three to four levels of resident and nonresident underground parking, according to planning department documents.
Amenities for residents would include a cyber cafe, fitness center and lounge. A sun deck, water element, grill station and/or outdoor lounging and seating areas are proposed for the roof.
The company’s application to the Montgomery County Planning Department proposes two alternative building heights, said Daryl South, its senior vice president of development and acquisitions. Although both would feature up to 145 multifamily units, one would be 90 feet tall, while the other would reach 120 feet along Wisconsin Avenue and taper toward the interior of the property.
He said the company hopes to start construction in 18 to 24 months.
State Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda does not want to see Eastham’s, the last of the old Bethesda institutions, join other lost local businesses, such as Peoples Drug.
Preserved in photographs at Eastman’s are other defunct local landmarks, such as Hiser movie theater, Buick dealer Covington Motor Co., and Chevrolet dealer Chevy Chase Motor Co.
Frosh said he has been taking his cars to the station for more than 30 years.
“It’s the best service station I’ve ever been to,” he said. “They’re honest, they’re quick, and their work is superb.”
To explain his fierce loyalty, Frosh shared a decades-old memory.
Twenty or so years ago, he brought his wife’s station wagon into the shop. It needed $900 worth of repairs, a major undertaking then and now. The mechanic suggested Frosh take the Ford Taurus to the Ford dealer because it might be under warranty. The mechanic was right.
“They saved me $900,” Frosh said. “How many places care that much? How many places are honest enough to say, ‘Somebody else may do it for free?’”
Although Eastham's will stop selling gas Sept. 30, Embrey said the station will remain at the site a little longer if the owner, Ellen Zinkler, Bob Eastham’s sister, can negotiate a lease.
South, who has been a customer of Eastham’s for a couple of years, said the Washington Property Company is open to the idea.
The Zinklers also are searching for a new Bethesda location for Eastham’s, which would remain as a service station only, said George Zinkler, Ellen’s husband of 51 years.
The potential move is bittersweet for George Zinkler, who took over operations after Bob Eastham’s death. Born and raised in Bethesda, George grew up across the street from the Eastham family and worked at the station in the 1950s, when he was in high school.
“It is emotional,” Ellen said. “Yes, absolutely, for the employees who have devoted the best years of their young lives to the service center.”
The property consists of two parcels, one of which was purchased by Washington Property Company several years ago and contains the service center. The other parcel was owned by Exxon, which recently sold to Washington Property Company, South said. Exxon officials could not be reached for comment.
George Zinkler said Bob Eastham had the option to buy the property but that the purchase did not make financial sense. The property was too valuable to maintain with Servicenter profits.
Embrey said that credit card fees, more competition, and Giant grocery store’s gas points have eaten into the station’s profits.
“The gas business has changed a lot,” he said. “The core of our business used to be gas. Now it’s service.”