Throwback Thursday: When Not Everyone Liked the Citgo Sign

With the Red Sox in the playoffs, we revisit a debate on the Boston Globe opinion page over the now-iconic landmark.

It being Red Sox playoff season, what better occasion to revisit a time when the Kenmore Square Citgo Sign’s status as a cultural icon was somewhat less universally acknowledged.

The sign has existed in some form since 1940, though it was the “Cities Service” sign until 1965, when the company rebranded with a zippier name. In October of 1976, a disgruntled Red Line rider set off a weeks-long debate in the Letter to the Editor section of the Boston Globe. On September 24, Helen Kirby of Southborough wrote (subscription required) to the newspaper:

For years I adored the ride across the Charles, both in and out of Boston. The one blight on that wonderful landscape was THAT (CITGO) SIGN, blinking, expanding, retracting. During the short-lived power cutback, it was turned off. What a delight not to see it winking at me.

Can we start a campaign to get it turned off permanently?

But even then, the Citgo sign had its fans, and through the month of October, they wrote to the paper with equally strong opinions. (Kirby had the occasional disgruntled supporter, too.) Walter Guertin of Belmont wrote:

As one who had to learn the streets of Boston through trial and error (mostly error), I remember that the Citgo sign at Kenmore Square was my savior on more than one occasion. It’s Boston’s very own ‘North Star.’ Keep the sign!

One of the defenders established that even by 1966, just one year after the sign made its modern debut, it had already earned a place in the hearts of some Boston residents. Warren Thayer of Amesbury’s letter is one for the ages. He wrote:

I don’t know how long it has been there, but 10 years ago The Sign was already a legend—at least at BU. The highest status on campus went to those with top-floor, end rooms at Myles Standish Hall so they had an unobstructed view. If things were really bad, they had the inner peace of knowing that they could always relax, get stoned and watch The Sign all night. All this while we underlings on the lower floors actually put in for room transfers …

Given its soothing powers over BU undergrads, it’s no wonder that in 1983 when Citgo threatened to take the sign down—the governor had forced it to shut its lights off in 1979 as a symbol of energy conservation—Boston rallied to its side, urging the Landmarks Commission to save it. The Boston Globe editors were among its defenders. Having read those many letters years earlier, they wrote that the sign “has been an important reference point, emotionally and geographically, for many Bostonians.”

Though the Commission didn’t act, Citgo heard the cry, repaired and relit the sign. Decades later, it probably still gets the occasional grumble from aestheticians and environmentalists, but it has also made its way onto enough postcards and Buzzfeed lists that we imagine its here to stay.

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