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Citgo Sign to Get Extreme Makeover

Kenmore Square icon needs a fresh glow

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In the slide show above, Patrick Kennedy recounts the Citgo sign’s history and transformation and how it’s survived even its relationship to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Photos by BU Photography, unless otherwise indicated

Buff at age 45 and still beloved, the decades have weathered a once-lustrous countenance. So the Citgo sign is getting a facelift.

New Bedford–based Poyant Signs has been hired to spiff up the landmark crowning the Barnes & Noble at BU bookstore in Kenmore Square. The upgrade should benefit nocturnal travelers (more reliable LED units), the skyline (a power wash), and lighting aficionados (new motion controllers regulating the flash).

Workers transplanted LEDs into the sign five years ago, replacing five miles of neon-tube veining. But that earlier LED technology, coupled with Boston’s “wild swings of weather,” have produced occasional power failures in sections, says Poyant account executive Geoff Diehl.

“Advances in the technology and materials used to produce the new LED lighting make this the right time to adapt the sign,” says Diehl, “and we are very excited to work on one of the more prominent features of the Boston skyline.” His excitement has a political component: the Republican is running for state representative in the 7th Plymouth district and announced the contract in a campaign news release.

The rehab, to be supervised by electrician and longtime sign caretaker Marty Foley, will start in early spring and take three months, says Diehl. If a full season sounds lengthy for a nip and tuck, consider the gargantuan proportions of this face — 60 feet by 60 feet — and its high profile. The sign is a beacon for Boston Marathon runners, signaling that the finish line is coming, according to Patrick Kennedy (COM’04), author of Boston Then and Now. Non-Bostonians see the crimson triangle whenever TV cameras stalk a homer clearing Fenway Park’s Green Monster. Some Little League teams decorate their fields with replicas of the sign.

Built in 1965 to replace a previous Citgo sign from 1940, the landmark has survived five hurricanes, a close encounter with a wrecking ball, and a costarring role in a movie with the Monkees and Ravi Shankar (1968’s Go, Go CITGO). The wrecking reprieve came in 1983, when the Boston Landmarks Commission, responding to alarmed residents, halted Citgo’s planned demolition of its aging advertisement. Native Bostonian Kennedy, a senior editor and writer at BU’s Creative Services, puts it in the same league as other Boston icons, like Faneuil Hall and the Prudential Tower.

Might purists grouse about threading more 21st-century technology into an FDR-era piece of history?

Doubtful, says Kennedy, recalling no such objections when the sign was LED-ed in 2005. “I think most people who are interested in preservation are happy to see a good compromise,” he says. “The historic artifact remained essentially the same in appearance while becoming more energy-efficient and reducing its impact on the environment.”

Nor has Diehl gotten complaints about plugging his connection to the sign via his legislative campaign.

“It didn’t really occur to me there would be an issue on what letterhead it came out on,” he says. “I thought it would be an interesting story that someone running for office has a history of restoring landmarks.”

No word on whether Democratic incumbent Allen McCarthy plans to paste his bumper sticker on the icon.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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8 Comments

8 Comments on Citgo Sign to Get Extreme Makeover

  • Paula Fredriksen on 02.18.2010 at 5:50 am

    CITGO sign

    Some chronological wobble here: the Citgo sign cannot be “45 years old” if it is also from the FDR era — both of which this story asserts. FDR died in 1945. The sign, ergo, must be no fewer than SIXTY-FIVE years old.

    Also: who owns the sign, and thus who is footing the bill, the City of Boston or the University?

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2010 at 7:24 am

    Citgo Sign

    You know what I’m interested in? Seeing the giant eyesore disappear from the horizon. Not seeing it lovingly restored to full glare.

    I find it amusing that just because an advertisement is old it’s somehow worthy of historic praise and exemption from any consideration of aesthetics. A sign like that would never get approved today and for good reason.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2010 at 7:36 am

    citgo needs to be cit-gone

    No one wants to hear this, but the inconvenient truth is that the Citgo sign symbolizes much that we must do away with if we want to help secure our future well-being. The lights being on — even at reduced wattage — have no purpose other than to represent our continued exploitation of the planet’s dwindling resources, as well as contributes to unnecessary carbon dioxide output. Moreover, this sign is representative of big petroleum companies, and as such we need to be phasing these outmoded, damaging symbols of power and exploitation rather than promote them as gods.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2010 at 10:36 am

    Citgo sign--

    Glad it is going green!

  • Jim Wisdom on 02.18.2010 at 11:44 am

    Paying for sign upgrade

    Can someone enlighten me what is the monetary source for allowing this upgrade to occur?

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2010 at 11:19 am

    Citgo sign

    I LOVE the Citgo sign and am so glad it’s getting another facelift! I have considered the Citgo sign “My Citgo Sign” ever since I moved to Boston in 1966, somehow not thinking that there were and are so many other people out there that feel the same way! I’m ecstatic to “share” my Citgo sign with so many others!

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2010 at 3:45 pm

    * The Citgo corporation owns and maintains the sign.
    * The original Cities Service sign dates to 1940. It was replaced by the 1965 sign when the company changed its name to Citgo.

  • Anonymous on 02.24.2010 at 7:40 pm

    To the first comment–the article adds that this sign was built in 1965 to replace the original, built in 1940. If you do the math, it’s 45 years old. Glad to hear our Citgo sign is being kept up, it’s our favorite landmark at BU :-)

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