Preserving neon 'landmarks' -- roadside Americana

Perched high above Boston's cluttered Kenmore Square is a worn but gaudy relic from the mid-'60s. It's a tremendous neon sign with a simple pyramid and the imposing caption: CITGO.

For some it might seem an unlikely object for admiration - it looks as if it were torn off a gas station. But Boston's Citgo (Cities Service Company) sign has been the focus of much local - and national - attention as a group of earnest citizens has pushed to save what it regards as an irreplacable city heirloom.

Their lobbying pinpoints an increasing interest in what could be called roadside culture. While some still regard this recent movement about as enthusiastically as they would a family member bringing back trash from the dump , others consider it a vital part of historic preservation.

''The Citgo sign has certainly galvanized those interested in architecture of the recent past,'' remarks Arthur Krim, a past president of the Society for Commercial Archaeology and a leader in the battle to save the sign. ''This is a new frontier. It's forced people to think about things that are a part of their lives (and consider saving them before they disappear).''

In the case of Citgo, efforts to have the sign designated a landmark failed. But the oil company agreed to restore and relight the sign for the next three years at a cost of about $300,000.

Mr. Krim says he feels the era of the flamboyant type of display represented by Citgo is a thing of the past - albeit recent past - the victim of a less optimistic era following the Vietnam war and the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

Krim has gone as far as to survey a local stretch of US Route 1, a well-worn but colorful strip marked by restaurants, gas stations, and motels competing for attention. He found that no significant displays had been built since 1970.

Down in Washington, D.C., fellow society member Peter Smith leads two or three day-long bus tours a year - all filled - to explore roadside culture. For these trips, Route 1 is a visual supermarket to shop for views of recent Americana.

''They (roadside commercial establishments) were all designed to draw people off the roadway,'' he remarks. ''We're more into corporate identity now. Once you establish your identity, then you can go to slicker signage.''

Take McDonald's, for example. From its flamboyant beginnings of vibrant red-and-white buildings with huge yellow arches, these restaurants have evolved to comparatively subdued brick.

The first McDonald's, built in 1955 in Des Plaines, Ill., is under attack - and the culprit is not Burger King but declining business. The company plans to close the outlet this summer and move across the street.

The volume of inquiries from around the country has astonished company officials. James R. Williams, president of the Des Plaines Historical Society, says the outlet represents the beginning of a movement ''that has changed the eating habits of America.'' McDonald's is now considering several options for the building, including completely restoring it.

San Diego's (Calif.) Save Our Neon Organization (SONO) is trying to find a home for an almost 50-foot majorette that has been drumming up business for the Campus Drive-In theater there. When the sign comes down in the next month or so, it will join SONO's Gloria Poore in the converted warehouse where she lives with her husband. She says she hopes to find someone willing to display the sign outdoors.

Neon is also the rallying cry for the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Los Angeles. A neon Mona Lisa gazes out of the front of its building.

The museum, which also features work by neon artists, has acquired 30 signs that it displays on a rotating basis, documenting their history.

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