At the Cardinal Plaza Shell gas station on the corner of Old Keene Mill and Rolling roads in Springfield, it's not unusual to pass a Japanese garden on the way to the pump or a miniature golf course near the exit, or to stand in the shadow of a life-size Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle as you fill your tank.
It's not fantasyland, but a filling station that year-round looks like Disney on Ice without the ice.
For the holidays, there's an elaborate, colorful light display, including a 25-foot Christmas tree, red and white lights bordering the station's immaculate lawn, nine miniature reindeer and a sleigh, each made from 250 tiny white lights, and of course, Rudolph lighted atop the station's service bays.
Last summer brought the 5 1/2-foot fiberglass ninja turtle, made by a Virginia Beach artisan.
Year-round there's a Japanese garden, complete with ornamental pagodas, statues and figurines, and a winding gravel pathway leading from a shiny red bridge to a pond.
There's almost always a carpet of neatly edged, lush, weedless grass bordering the station.
Every few months or so, new intricate and colorful floral designs are introduced. To top it all, a model train runs on a track above the cashier's station, 12 hours a day.
The station looks so unusual, at an intersection dominated by beige and brown strip shopping, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and other gas stations, that people routinely use it as a background for photographs, the station's owner, U.T. Brown, said.
Why such a floral fuss? Pride, for one, Brown said. Good business, for another. And, "I like berms, I like trees, I like bright flowers. I try to have something going every season of the year."
The garden, which looks professionally landscaped, is designed and maintained by Brown and his service station attendants, he said.
"I don't like any of it commercially done," Brown said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't have the same effect."
The gardens have become a neighborhood landmark that have made some of the station attendants minor celebrities at local gatherings, Brown said.
"It's sort of a conversation piece for the neighborhood," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield). "When he put up the ninja turtle, there was a lot of talk about that."
"Service stations are not the most popular things to go in neighborhoods," McConnell said. "He's out there all the time working on it. He took a service station and made it into sort of a community landmark the way he's been landscaping it and lighting it."
The County Board of Supervisors gave Brown and his son, Scott, a community service award for the landscaping, McConnell said.
"It's really rather amazing," said Dave Foreman, a staff assistant to McConnell. "People do talk about it. It's an added attraction."
However, not everyone, Brown said, likes the hard-shelled ninja straddling the barren branches of a dead cherry tree.
"I don't know about the ninja turtle," Foreman said. "Personally, I liked it a little bit better before. But everybody else likes it so I can go along with it. You see children out there playing. If everybody did that . . . it would make things a lot nicer."
Brown said he spends about 20 hours a week on his gardens. He said it's not really a hobby, because "it's too damn hard work. We probably have 40 to 50 hours of men working each week on landscaping around here."
He gets his ideas by talking to people, reading books and trying to replicate what he likes.
"I was standing talking to somebody one day and they said, 'Boy, this grass is just as pretty as a golf course,' " Brown said. So Brown made a white bench with fake golf clubs propped against it, and a putting green with a cup and flagstick.
He got the ninja turtle idea when his beloved cherry tree died. He said he didn't know whether to remove the trunk and thick branches, or place a decorative rock on top of them. "For a while, I decided to ride this wave and put this ninja turtle up there," Brown said.
He had it made for $600. "Sounds foolish, doesn't it?" Brown said, laughing.
"I was thinking about putting a Santa Claus suit on him or something, but I really haven't gotten into that stage yet," Brown said.
The Japanese garden cost nearly $3,000 in materials alone, Brown said. "But it lasts for more than one season," he explained.
One of the most popular parts of his display is a wooden pelican near the pond. "An older gentleman, about three or four years ago, said, 'I'd like to make something for your garden, Mr. Brown.' He said, 'I'm going to make a pelican.' So he made this pelican and it took him three months. I thought he forgot about it.
"That pelican sat out there for about 12 months and no one really said anything about it," Brown said. Then someone vandalized the pelican and Brown had it removed.
"Every day, five or six people said, 'Where's the pelican, where's the pelican?' " Brown said. "After 30 days I cleaned him back up, sanded him down and put the dude back out there. You really don't know what hits people."