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Update | BRIGHTON

Neon loses out to rust, dooming landmark sign

Dunkin' Donuts is replacing this North Beacon Street sign, which some say dates to 1957. Preservationists would like to see the sign restored or salvaged. Dunkin' Donuts is replacing this North Beacon Street sign, which some say dates to 1957. Preservationists would like to see the sign restored or salvaged. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2008

There were no birthday cakes or special crullers when the oversized neon Dunkin' Donuts sign in Brighton turned 50 in 2007. Indeed, the rusted landmark and last original Dunkin' Donuts sign standing anywhere appears on the verge of passing quietly into oblivion sometime soon.

"The sign is coming down," says Andrew Mastrangelo, communications manager for Canton-based Dunkin' Brands Inc.

Believed to have been erected in 1957, the rusting and unlighted sign next to a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts towers over the intersection of Market and North Beacon streets. Mastrangelo said a new sign will replace the old one, which has "deteriorated to an unacceptable condition."

The impending demise of the old sign troubles some preservationists and admirers of mid-20th century roadside architecture.

"It's sad news in the world of Boston landmarks," said Arthur Krim, a geographer who led the campaign to save the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square in the 1980s. "It's not unexpected, but I'm disappointed that after a half-century of public service, this logo won't be around for another half-century."

David Waller of Malden, a neon sign collector, said he hopes Dunkin' Donuts will find a way to preserve this piece of history. "Dunkin' Donuts signifies the end of mom and pop doughnut shops. To find something left over from that era is very important," he said.

Mastrangelo indicated that the local franchisee will work with the community and city officials on plans for a replacement sign. "With all our restaurants, our intent is to always work to preserve the spirit and architectural essence of the neighborhood," Mastrangelo said.

The stretch of North Beacon Street near the Massachusetts Turnpike is a busy strip with a mix of business uses. The road has a couple of other survivors of early commercial automobile culture, including the 1952 stainless steel Pig'n Whistle diner and Twin Donuts, with its well-preserved neon sign.

The lettering on the old Dunkin' Donuts sign is significantly different from a modern Dunkin' sign, although the color scheme is similar. "The pink neon gives it a candy-colored aura that matches the flavors of the doughnuts themselves," said Krim.

A professor at the Boston Architectural Center, Krim has researched the history of Dunkin' Donuts signs and is convinced the one in Brighton dates to 1957, when the company started franchising. The sign is classic '50s graphic style, according to Krim.

"What appeals to me is that the apostrophe in Dunkin' is a piece of neon unto itself." Modern Dunkin' Donuts signs are made of backlit plexiglass with fluorescent tubes.

Waller said he owns the only other intact original neon Dunkin' Donuts sign, which he purchased from a collector and restored. That sign came from the Dunkin' Donuts store on Southern Artery in Quincy, according to Waller. That was the very first Dunkin' Donuts, opened by company founder William Rosenberg in 1950.

Waller said he might try to acquire the Brighton sign, also. "I'm interested in saving it one way or the other. I don't need another one. I just don't want to see it go in a dumpster," he said. Waller said he hopes that the Dunkin' Brands corporation will help the franchisee restore the sign.

Now the world's largest coffee and baked goods chain, Dunkin' Donuts was acquired by a British corporation in 1990 and later sold to a consortium of private equity firms.

Small collections of artifacts from the company's early years are preserved in exhibits at Dunkin' Donuts headquarters and at the Quincy Historical Society. Edward F. Fitzgerald, the society's director, said he wishes he had more items from Dunkin' Donuts, but has been unable to acquire any from the company. "I'm not sure they know what they have," he said.

The neon sign, however, would probably be too big for the society's museum, Fitzgerald said.

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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