Facing an Uncertain Future, A Petition is Launched to Save Boston’s Iconic Citgo Sign

Workmen Repair CITGO Sign in Kenmore Square Boston

Spencer Grant, “Workmen repair Citgo Sign in Kenmore Square, Boston,” 1974. Boston Public Library, Spencer Grant Collection. © Spencer Grant.

Lauded by architecture critic Robert Campbell as a “masterpiece of urban commercial art[1]” and as “one of the great works of public art in the city,[2]” the Citgo sign is without a doubt one of the most recognizable landmarks in Boston. Located in Kenmore Square—roughly three blocks away from historic Fenway Park—the Citgo sign has been part of Boston’s skyline since the mid-sixties. The bold red, white and blue 60’ by 60’ sign was designed in 1965.

And here’s a shocker: as with anything that is of great and bold design in Boston (cue Boston City Hall), the Citgo sign wasn’t always loved by the people. I hope this isn’t the case now, but I may be wrong.

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the sign was shut off, which prompted many letters to the editor of the Boston Globe, both praising and condemning the action. If that wasn’t enough, in 1982 the sign faced demolition’s wrecking ball until Bostonians—including Robert Campbell—urged the City to take a closer look at the sign. After much uproar, the Boston Landmarks Commission halted the demolition order and held a public hearing, but it decided in January of 1983 not to designate the Citgo sign as a city landmark, stating “that it didn’t want to subject the sign owners to cost of keeping it functioning.[3]” The already iconic sign remained on top of 660 Beacon Street, but not without being the target of insults (Hugo Chavez in 2006) or catching on fire in 2008. The sign was restored in 2010 and its lights were replaced with more technologically advanced and environmentally friendly ones.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

Not so fast.

The sign is back in the preservation spotlight.

Its current owner, Boston University, announced in January that it intended to sell the building on which the sign sits on “with no stipulations that the sign remain,” according to the Boston Preservation Alliance. The organization has launched a petition asking the City of Boston to grant landmark status to the Citgo sign, so that it will be permanently protected.

In 1982, the sign was considered one of the “Magnificent Seven” landmarks in the City of Boston by Robert Campbell, who called it a “magnificent illuminated sign.”[4] Campbell went on to say that the Citgo sign “pulsed like an electric heart in the night sky over Kenmore Square, its blue and red reflected in the Charles River basin. But it was turned off—in 1979—a purely symbolic response to the energy crisis. Now the sign is deteriorating.”

“Many people feel snobbish about the great signs, but surely the monuments of our automobile era are as legitimate as those of any other time. And the Citgo sign in the best symbol,[5]” Campbell continued.

“The Citgo sign is good design. It may be a symbol of a bygone era in its association with energy and affluence, but it’s a symbol of a new era in design, one which promises to enhance our cities instead of disfiguring them,”[6] wrote Joe Selame in a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe published on June 15, 1980.

I could go on and on quoting all the letters published in support of a landmark designation for the Citgo sign, but I think you get the point: good design is easily recognizable and the Citgo sign, is good design.

It’s hard to imagine Boston without the Citgo sign. Like the 1954 Prudential Building by Charles Luckman Associates and the 1976 John Hancock Building designed by Henry N. Cobb of I. M. Pei & Partners, the Citgo sign has served as another landmark by which many of us Bostonians orient ourselves on a daily basis. In a city as architecturally conservative as Boston, the Citgo sign represents a departure from the banal and we’ll be better off  by saving it for future generations of Bostonians to enjoy. I love the sign and I know many of those who love Fenway Park, do too. It’s hard not to associate the Citgo sign with baseball in Boston—they seem to go hand in hand.

Cover Image Courtesy of Jesse Haley of South End Textiles


[1] Campbell, Robert. “Architecture.” The Boston Globe 26 December 1982: A35. Print.
[2]  Campbell, Robert. “IN THIS CORNER: A Fossil, It Sits There, A Sign of Its Time, And, Sadly Ours.” The Boston Globe 21 June 1982: 1. Print.
[3] Ball, Joanne. “It’s No Go for Citgo ‘Landmark.” The Boston Globe 26 January 1983: 17. Print
[4] Campbell, Robert.  “A Magnificent Seven.” The Boston Globe 22 August 1982: SM13. Print.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Selame, Joe. “Letters: The Citgo Symbol.” The Boston Globe 15 June 1980: G4. Print