CAMBRIDGE - A decade ago, when the Shell sign was on its last legs, it delivered a message when illuminated.
The “S’’ had burned out, so that it read “HELL,’’ which is what the sign looked like.
Eight decades of New England weather and spit-and-bubblegum repairs left a device that could only be left for dead, a snapshot of the past corroded through. Six years ago, it was turned off for good.
But while it was dark, it was able to accomplish something it could not when illuminated - get designated an official Cambridge landmark. Twice the Cambridge Historical Commission had taken the proposal before the council, and twice it had failed because of the city’s political differences with the Shell Oil Co. of Houston. But in 2009, the council decided that the only surviving “spectacular’’ neon sign in the city was worth keeping. The assumption, though, was that it would stay off.
“We honestly didn’t have any hope that it would ever be lit again,’’ said Charlie Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission. “That seemed to us to be pretty far-fetched, more than we could reasonably hope for.’’
Then last night, beneath a cloudy sky, something happened. The Shell sign did not come back on. No, that sign was scrapped this summer. Instead, an exact replica, completely new and modern, was turned on. The neon letters are now LED, but other than that, it’s 1933 again.
“It’s art at a gas station,’’ said Scott Godley, a neighbor who stopped to watch the lights make their first runs around the clamshell. It is the same chase sequence as on the original.
As he said this, Godley was standing on the edge of the service bay, head back, with Tibor Hangyal, a Hungarian guy they call Andy. He owns the gas station. And he is the reason for the sign’s rebirth.
“I’ve been saving up the pennies for a decade,’’ he said. “Every customer in the neighborhood has been kicking in a couple of cents per gallon.’’ The historical designation helped get the right people at corporate interested, and a new sign was ordered, using the original drawings, and fabricators in Las Vegas - where they still make such signs, known as “spectacular’’ signs - and at Boston’s Back Bay Sign.
As the sign illuminated its first night, it was announcing itself again to the neighborhood. Leigh Flannery, who moved into the house closest to it when she was 12, remembers it flashing into her bedroom. She had no idea it was coming back on and was caught off guard that it was running through its light cycle again.
“I thought they weren’t allowed to put it back on,’’ she said. “I’m not sure why it needs to be on. Special occasions, maybe.’’
But soon, many people will see it. The sign has its moment when the leaves are off the trees, making it visible from the Boston University Bridge and many buildings across the water. It’s a good photo, and a big view coming down the overpass for the thousands of drivers who come west on Memorial Drive every day. When it blinks into full life, it’s like fireworks in your face.
The original sign went up in 1933 just across the BU Bridge atop what is now Boston University Academy. It had a twin on the roof but that was dismantled when the other was sent across the river in 1948 to its current location at the foot of Magazine Street. The Boston company that made the sign, John Donnelly Sons, also made the Budweiser sign in Charlestown, the General Electric display in Lynn, and the White Fuel sign in Kenmore Square, all icons that are gone.
The Morse School is in front of it now, where there used to be a park, but the sign is still big and full of impact, 68 feet high in an area where everything around it is zoned to 45 feet.
The makeover cost more than $200,000, Hangyal said, with help from corporate, and now the sign is designed to last. Back Bay Sign built it for the long haul, with removable panels for service. (The old sign needed to be cut into, repaired, and then welded shut.)
Last night, after weeks of almost-done moments and last-second parts, the sign went on and stayed on - until it went off precisely at 4 p.m., a momentary whodunit until it was determined that the timer set to turn it on had instead turned it off.
Hangyal climbed a ladder, fixed the problem, and craned his neck back again. It was a moment for him.
“It’s wonderful, it’s gorgeous,’’ he said. “We’re going to have a traffic jam tonight.’’