Boston Takes Step to Elevate Citgo Sign From LED Beacon to Landmark
By JESS BIDGOOD
BOSTON — This historic city has a booming downtown, colorful neighborhoods, charming parks and a skyline overlooking the river, but there is no single landmark — no Space Needle, statue or monument — that shouts “Boston” to the world as soon as it is spotted from a distance.
Unless you count the Citgo sign.
The 60-foot-by-60-foot white badge, with a red triangle over the blue “Citgo,” hovers six stories above Kenmore Square, where it can be seen from many of the major thoroughfares in and out of the city — not to mention just over left field at Fenway Park.
“If you have an out-of-towner, and they say, ‘Where’s Fenway Park?’ you say, ‘Follow the Citgo sign,’” said Cody Burridge, 26, a freelance photographer who was, on a recent evening, smoking a cigarette underneath the sign. “It’s kind of a landmark, really.”
Officially, not yet. But Tuesday night, the Boston Landmarks Commissionvoted to study whether the sign should be given landmark status, making it a “pending landmark” and essentially taking the first step toward adding the LED sign to a collection of Colonial-era buildings and stately greens.
The building below it, which is owned by Boston University, is for sale, and some officials in Boston are rushing to shore it up against the forces of this city’s white-hot real estate boom.
“With the potential sale of the building, suddenly its future was uncertain,” said Lynn Smiledge, the chairwoman of the Landmarks Commission, who pressed to at least start the process of protecting the sign.
The sign seems to meet the dictionary definition of a landmark: “an object or feature of a landscape or town that is easily seen and recognized from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location.”
Greg Galer, the executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said during Tuesday’s meeting, “People from around the world see the Citgo sign and, instantly, they know where they are.” Mr. Galer’s organization has collected more than 5,000 signatures in an online petition to make the sign a city landmark.
“The sign,” Mr. Galer said, “has become a symbol of our city.”
But what, exactly, does it symbolize?
The sign was built in 1965, replacing one with a shamrock that had been perched on the building from 1940. Then made of neon, the Citgo sign served as an enormous advertisement for the oil company, which is now owned by Venezuela.
But that commercial meaning has all but fallen away.
“Citgo’s the last thing you think of,” said Leverett Ball, 23, a radio promotions assistant who was standing with his father, the economist Laurence Ball, near the sign on a recent evening.
“I think of it as a symbol of the Red Sox,” the elder Mr. Ball said.
The sign has inculcated itself into the consciousness of this sports-crazed city because it is close to both Fenway Park and the finish line of the Boston Marathon. What is more, it is a useful flare in a city that is notoriously difficult to navigate.
Some of its supporters have also argued that it has artistic significance.
“Beyond the fact that it’s an orienting beacon, that it’s a bull’s-eye for the home run of the Red Sox, that it’s a symbol for the marathon finish line, is that it is a wonderful piece of American Pop Art from the 1960s,” said Arthur Krim, a member of the preservation faculty at Boston Architectural College, who tried unsuccessfully to win the sign a landmark designation in the early 1980s.
Boston has other memorable structures. The glass monolith formerly known as the Hancock Tower, for example, is the city’s tallest building. And the Bunker Hill Monument rises above the Charlestown neighborhood. But none of those instantly convey “Boston” to a global audience in the way that the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Buildingshout “New York.”
But the Citgo sign does. And it does it in a unique way, supporters said.
“In a city as architecturally conservative as Boston, the Citgo sign represents a departure from the banal,” wrote Anulfo Baez, a local art writer, on his blog Evolving Critic, “and we’ll be better off by saving it for future generations of Bostonians to enjoy.”
The sign has not always been so beloved. With the nation in the grips of an energy crisis, the state asked Citgo in 1979 to let it go dark, and it stayed that way for four years — much to the chagrin of Robert Campbell, the architecture critic of The Boston Globe, who called it “the crown jewel of the Boston skyline” and “the best symbol Boston owns of a whole era in American history, now drawing to a close: the Age of Abundance.”
The sign was lit again in 1983, as speakers blasted the song “You Light Up My Life,” and it has stayed that way nearly every night since. In 2010, the sign was fitted with 9,000 LED bulbs.
“It’s become part of the language of the city,” Mr. Krim said. “Which I think everyone is quite surprised by.”
Not least Citgo itself, which sent Brenda Rivera, a representative from corporate communications, to Tuesday’s meeting in support of starting the landmark process.
“Although the sign bears our name and is owned by us,” Ms. Rivera said, “it really belongs to Boston.”