Steve Annear is in pursuit of stories from the region that are so odd or unconventional, you’ll want to bring them up at dinner parties. Have you seen something out there that you’d like answers to? A giant door? Or perhaps a graveyard of rocking horses, a strange stone marker on an island, or old trophies under a bridge. Let us know by filling out this form. If your suggestion is picked, we’ll check it out for you.
For more than 30 years, the sign for the beverage giant was a dazzling landmark.
“Turn at the Coke sign,” you’d say to someone traveling down Soldiers Field Road, toward Allston.
At once a familiar presence and prominent fixture against the skyline — not unlike the Citgo sign of today — it told residents how to dress for the New England weather, flashing the temperature high above the winding thoroughfares. If you were without a watch, a quick glance skyward at its clock would inform you if you were running late.
Then, in the mid-1980s, the Coke sign was hoisted from its perch on the Coca-Cola Bottling Company’s Allston plant, to make way for a planned 15-story hotel. Calls to resurrect the sign followed and a fight to secure its status as a historic landmark reached the highest halls of Beacon Hill.
All the while, the sign sat. And it sat. And it sat. Until one day, it was simply gone from the nearby rail yard where it was being stored.
So where, exactly, did the white-and-red glowing sign end up? It’s long been a question people who lived near it have pondered. Scroll through Facebook fan pages dedicated to “old school" Boston, and it’s bound to come up every so often. It was also a recent inquiry for this column.
“What happened to the gigantic neon Coca-Cola sign in Allston, where the Double-Tree hotel now stands,” a reader asked, “near the entrance to the Turnpike?”
To retrace the sign’s journey from guiding light to gutter trash, we turned to the newspaper archives, which bubbled over with a decade’s worth of stories about the controversy.
Once called a “distinctive feature” of the city skyline, the sign graced the bottling plant on the corner of Soldiers Field Road and Cambridge Street, near the River Street Bridge that connects Cambridge to Boston over the Charles. Even when the Coca-Cola company vacated the space “the great red neon sign burned on, glistening on the wide lagoon,” M.R. Montgomery, a former Globe scribe, wrote in 1981.
For many, it wasn’t just an ad for a refreshing beverage. It was a work of commercial art, or a sign you were home.
“The sign was indeed a huge part of my childhood,” Linda Merullo, who lived a street over from it, said in an e-mail to the Globe. “Most everyone didn’t even know where Allston was, but when you mentioned the Coca-Cola sign, then they knew.”
In 1984, according to newspaper stories, the sign was removed from the building so work could begin on what was then the Embassy Suites Hotel (now the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel). It was stored in the Conrail Beacon Park freight yard.
People lobbied for the sign’s preservation, but in 1985, the state Outdoor Advertising Board said it couldn’t go back up, claiming that because it was no longer attached to the bottling plant, it would violate state regulations for off-premise signs.
Two years after the board’s removal, then-state representative, William Galvin, introduced legislation to skirt the regulations by trying to get the sign historic landmark status, “allowing it to be placed along a strip where commercial signs are otherwise banned,” according to a story from the United Press International that ran in the Globe.
His proposal would have placed it on a 60-foot pedestal not far from its original home.
“It’s not the Mona Lisa, but it’s prettier than the hotel,” Galvin told the New York Times that year. “In our culture and times, the Coca-Cola sign is to Allston what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.”
In an interview this week, Galvin, now the Secretary of the Commonwealth, said he had a lot of other legislative activity going on at the time, and his only interest was “keeping the sign in that vicinity because it was a landmark to local people.” He said he didn’t recall many of the details of the long-running dispute.
Both Coca-Cola and the Beacon Co., which owned the hotel, had hoped to re-light the sign. A company called Lo-Comm Inc., which purchased the sign in 1984 for $1 — plus the cost of removal, according to one report — was set to refurbish it with funds from the soda company, despite it being “in pretty rough shape.”
Arthur Krim, cofounder of The Society for Commercial Archeology, a group that wanted to rescue the sign from languishing in the Conrail train yard, called the plan “a major joy.”
The House and Senate eventually passed the proposal to resurrect the sign. But the flash of optimism was later subdued by the darkness of politics.
It soon became clear that restoring the sign would cost the state millions of dollars in federal highway money. It turned out, the Federal Highway Administration had “ruled the sign violated the Highway Beautification Act of 1965,” one Globe report said, and “faced with choosing between a flashing neon sign or losing $54 million in highway funds," the Senate reconsidered.
Besides pushback from the Outdoor Advertising Board and others, there had also been resistance from then-governor, Michael Dukakis. He personally opposed the sign, “in the name of preserving the river as a ‘special place,'" according to a Globe column from 1987, titled “Another piece of clutter."
Yet another report pinned some of the anti-sign sentiment on Dukakis’s wife, Kitty, writing: “Although a spokesman said yesterday that Mrs. Dukakis is unfamiliar with the issue, one State House source who has worked with her on beautification issues said she has referred to it as ‘that terrible Coke sign’ more than once.”
Dukakis did not return requests for comment about the sign.
With the restoration efforts all but abandoned, some time passed as the sign sat lifeless and unlit, face-up in the rail yard. Then, very suddenly, it disappeared.
“Landmark Coke sign is gone without a clue,” read a Globe headline on Aug. 13, 1988.
"It’s gone,” said the vice president of the Beacon Co. “Total mystery,” said a Coca-Cola spokesman. “We’re investigating,” said a spokesman for Conrail.
Krim, at the time, told the Globe that he was out of ideas about how to track down “the billboard-size object.”
But during a recent telephone interview — decades after the the sign went missing — Krim said the so-called “mystery” had pretty much been solved.
“We know where it went,” he said, claiming it was carted off on the bed of a train car to Danville, Ill., where it was buried.
Further details were uncapped in a Globe story from 1991. It was then that a Suffolk Superior Court jury ordered Conrail to pay $461,001 to Lo-Comm Inc. — the company that had apparently purchased the sign in the first place — for "dismantling and throwing away the 800-square-foot Coca-Cola sign.”
The article said after the state refused to give Lo-Comm approval to re-erect it, Conrail sent two warning letters to Lo-Comm.
“The following year," it said, "it was taken apart and sent to a landfill.”
Krim said as a longtime preservationist, fights like the drawn-out one to save the Coke sign stick with you for the rest of your life.
"They do not disappear,” he said.
Unless, of course, they do.
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