Lonely Planet Writer

The future of Boston's iconic Citgo sign hangs in mid-air

Boston’s Citgo sign is as integral to the skyline as the Chrysler Building is to New York City. The square white sign with the blinking orange-red triangle has been sitting atop 666 Beacon Street in Kenmore Square in one form or another since 1965.

The Citgo sign in Boston.
The Citgo sign in Boston. Image by Henry Han / CC BY-SA 2.0

The sign is well known to baseball fans who see it blinking over the left field wall of Fenway Park and it’s a beacon for Boston University students who use it as a guiding star to find their way home. In 1980, The Boston Globe’s legendary architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote, “The Citgo sign is a landmark of Boston and of its time as legitimate as the State House dome. It stands for an important period in our history … and it’s beautiful.” But it’s possible that Citgo’s days of keynoting Boston’s skyline may be numbered. On 12 August, Boston University announced it planned to sell 660 Beacon and nine adjacent buildings to Related Beal, one of Boston’s oldest real estate development firms.

Related Beal has a strong track record of redevelopment in Boston – the Park Square Office Building and the Marriott Custom House are two of the historic properties successfully re-imagined by the company. BU says Related Beal’s proposal calls for keeping the sign right where it is. Specific plans for the sign – and the property that sits below it – should be announced later this year. Experts say even raising the sign by 30-feet would cause dramatic changes. Arthur Krim, a faculty member at the Boston Architectural College and advocate for the sign’s preservation told the Boston Globe that any building above 15 storeys would make the sign very hard to see. If the buyers of the nearby buildings decide to build up as well, that could potentially obscure the sign and alter the Boston skyline.

The Citgo sign.
The Citgo sign. Image by Louis Oliveira / CC BY-SA 2.0

This isn’t the first crisis facing the Citgo sign. It’s survived hurricanes and lightning strikes and was shut off entirely during the energy crisis in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 1980s Citgo itself wanted to remove the sign from its famous perch but a movement began to have it declared a landmark. Those efforts failed, but Citgo, recognised the importance of the sign to the city and chose to renovate it. Citgo also advocates preservation of its sign by the new owners. The Boston Preservation Alliance is actively working to keep the 60 feet square sign exactly where it is on the skyline. The Boston Landmarks Commission has accepted a petition from the Alliance to designate the sign as a Boston landmark in July. A subcommittee met on 18 August to discuss the designation.

Right now the fate of the iconic sign rests with Beal and the Landmarks Commission. If the city does grant the sign landmark status, it could provide some protection from being taken down, moved up or moved elsewhere. But until then, the red triangle in the sky looks like a giant question mark.