From Robert Whitcomb's "Boston Diary'' column in last week's The Boston Guardian:
Even ads for companies owned by South American dictatorships can be beloved. Consider the Citgo sign at Kenmore Square. Since 1965 the spectacle with the red trimark atop 660 Beacon St. has told many millions of Bostonians and visitors where they are. Few care that Venezuela’s state oil company now owns Citgo (a descendent of the old Cities Service oil company).
The pulsing (throbbing?) logo presides in its surreal way over Fenway Park, which helps expand its hypnotic allure well beyond Boston. After all, people around the world can view it in televised Red Sox games. And exhausted Boston Marathon runners love it because they know when they see the sign that they’re near the finish.
As most Guardian readers probably know, Kenmore Square development pressures in the past few years had put the sign’s future in doubt. But happy news comes from real-estate firm Related Beal, which now owns the Citgo sign building. The company says it will preserve the damn thing and protect views of it from various points around the city and Cambridge. Mayor Marty Walsh, relentless preservationists and many in the general public deserve much credit for saving this hallucinogenic treasure.
Some proper Back Bay folks in the mid-‘60s complained that the sign was too tacky. That reminds me of the delayed love of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, in Lower Manhattan. I worked across the street from those skyscrapers for a few years in the ‘70s as they were being built and then slowly rented out. For quite a long time many people hated them as a sterile Modernist travesty. But as their “twinness’’ became that overused word “iconic’’ and as New York recovered from its woes of the ‘70s and again became prosperous in the ‘80s and ’90s, a deep affection developed for the towers, which, of course, with their extreme height also served as markers for those confused amidst Manhattan’s density.
I most remember the Citgo sign from summer jobs in Boston in the late ’60s, and then as a reporter for The Boston Herald Traveler in 1970-71. The sign provided geographical guidance and psychological soothing for the college kids, Hippies and even many respectable people. Further, staring at the sign was a way to, er, enrich the pot-smoking experience of that rowdy time. And it evokes the Pop Art of the ‘60s; it looks like an Andy Warhol poster.
Growing reverence for the sign was manifest when it was turned off during stretches of two energy crises. Some then called it “Boston’s very own ‘North Star,’ and The Boston Globe’s celebrated architecture critic, Robert Campbell, in 1980 called it a “symbol’’ of the city.
I remember when the gold-topped, Art-Deco United Shoe Machinery Building dominated Boston’s Financial District and the company itself, nicknamed “The Shoe,’’ was a very powerful player in the New England economy. Now you’ll have a hard time finding the quaint skyscraper amidst the many new, higher office buildings around it and the company itself is long gone.
Will the Citgo sign be there in 50 years? I doubt it. But I hope it remains to help guide me through Boston’s labyrinth for the rest of my days.
Robert Whitcomb is president of The Boston Guardian, editor of newenglanddiary.com and a GoLocal24.com columnist.