Cities are so much more than their skylines. Still, collections of buildings, landscapes and elements matter. The most important piece to Boston’s skyline — the Citgo sign — is threatened, and it should be protected.
Architecture defines a sense of place — consider Seattle’s instantly recognizable Space Needle. It also hosts more than 1 million tourists per year, making it the number-one tourist attraction in the Northwest. In St. Louis, it is the Gateway Arch, in San Francisco the Golden Gate Bridge, and New York City the Empire State Building.
And it’s not just buildings. Signs can make or break a city, too.
There’s the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign, the iconic images of Times Square, and of course, the Hollywood sign. In the Midwest, Mayor John Norquist, citing costly maintenance, in 1988 removed the sign that spelled out, “Welcome Milwaukee Visitors,” popularized in the opening credits of the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.” He was later scandalized (for other reasons) and didn’t run for a fifth term. Served him right.
On Thursday, Boston University announced it’s selling several buildings, including the one which the Citgo sign sits atop, 660 Commonwealth Avenue.
The sale of this real estate is a good thing. While Boston University helped bring about the renaissance of Kenmore Square by investing in infrastructure and developing the Hotel Commonwealth, its other holdings lingered too long, staving off inevitable redevelopment and missing several market cycles.
Now with the sale of these nine buildings in the heart of Kenmore Square, the neighborhood will likely emerge as the next “it” location. It will be hard to think of a more exciting place for new residences, hotels, and entertainment.
But one thing should remain — the Citgo sign.
Since it was first installed in 1940, on more than one occasion, the sign has been the target of critics. In the 1970s Massachusetts Governor Edward King, tried to score points amid the energy crisis by having its lights turned off. Then, in 1982, Citgo announced it was going to tear down the sign, citing excessive costs, before the Boston Landmark Commission stepped in, stopping the razing while it considered the merits of the sign for landmark designation.
In its report, the Commission wrote, “Like steeples, clock towers and other visual silouettes (sic) on the skyline, the sign visually marks and identifies the place of Kenmore Sq. . . Neither Boston nor the Commonwealth have any other comparable design elements.”
In the end, however, they chose not to act, writing that the sign did “meet statutory criteria for Landmark designation, but as a ‘temporal advertising device’ cannot be designated.” Nonetheless, Citgo agreed to keep the sign running in 1983, and then later completely renovated it with special energy efficient lighting.
In 2006, a Boston City Councilor tried to have the sign removed, when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez called George W. Bush “the devil.” Fortunately, the resolution didn’t pass.
Citgo’s website today proclaims that the company “is committed to preserving this iconic landmark, and we are working hard to make sure it shines brighter and stronger than ever.”
Unfortunately, that may not be enough.
Other cities fought to keep their signs. Los Angeles nearly lost their Hollywood sign in the mid-1940s due to decay and neighborhood complaints — until it finally landmarked it in 1973.
It’s time for Boston Landmarks to move forward with its designation. Yes, Boston University’s buildings should be sold and redeveloped, but the sign should remain perfectly perched at the same height and location as it sits today on 660 Commonwealth Avenue — or whatever replaces it — and it should remain visible from both sides.
Boston need not keep everything the same. We’re a city on the move, and big changes are as inevitable as they are important. But since 1940, a symbol on our skyline has defined our city and region in ways that nothing else does. Ironically, it has nothing to do with petroleum or politics. It has everything to do with the city we all love.Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.