Officials will celebrate the restoration of the Citgo sign on Friday. The old neon lights that lit up the sign for years (L) have been replaced by much brighter LEDs, the glowing chips found in digital clocks. Officials say the sign will stand up to the tough New England weather.

Kenmore Sq. sign gets high-tech makeover

By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / March 16, 2005

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It has been loved and loathed, condemned and restored, tagged with graffiti and praised as nothing less than art. But one thing is for sure: the neon god of Kenmore Square is no longer neon.

When officials flip a switch Friday to celebrate a complete restoration of Boston's landmark Citgo sign, it will be something altogether different that lights up: light emitting diodes, the glowing chips that made digital alarm clocks possible.

Officials at the Houston-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., who say they learned a lesson in Boston's attachment to the sign 20 years ago after the company threatened to turn it off, insist that no one will be the wiser.

They took pains to make the sign look just as it did before. And they extol the virtues of the specially made LED tubes: They won't break under the harsh seige of a New England winter, as the fragile glass bulbs did, and being considerably more energy efficient, they will cut electric bills in half.

Still, in a city where traditions are held close to the heart and change is viewed with suspicion, there are some who aren't ready to embrace the new light source.

''There is a very firm opinion that the neon is not really neon; it's LED," said Arthur Krim, a Cambridge resident and professed Citgo sign historian who has made it a personal obsession.

He said the new sign may be nearly the same, but there are subtle differences. ''The new bulb is brighter and more intense than the old neon," Krim said.

A doorman at a Kenmore Square hotel, who gave his name only as Patrick, said he grew to love the buzz of the old sign.

''Now that it's gone, I really miss it," he said, adding that the sound belongs in a class with Route 66 and mournful saxophones.

The sign underwent its restoration in September, when Citgo, a unit of the Venezuelan state oil company, launched an effort to restore New England's largest neon sign to its 1965 glamour.

The renovation was urgent, said spokesman David McCollum. The weather-beaten sign had withstood five hurricanes and decades of brutal winters, he said, but it was deteriorating quickly and was costly to maintain.

''Over the past 40 years New England weather, which has not always been kind, had taken its toll," McCollum saud. ''Back in 1983, we had seriously considered turning the thing off for good. But the good citizens of Boston and New England raised a good to-do about it, so we reconsidered."

Back then, Citgo officials renovated the 60-foot-by-60-foot double-faced sign, replacing burned-out wires and fragile glass neon tubes, he said.

But faced with more decay this time, they took the renovation a bit further. ''It is now computer-operated," McCollum said. ''It's more energy efficient. It uses half the power . . . it did before. And the sign will look better."

To some loyal Bostonians and Red Sox fans, the old sign had a life of its own, beyond simple nostalgia and World Series superstition. In 1968, the acclaimed short film ''Go, Go CITGO" which captured honors at the Yale Film Festival, featured the neon sign along with music by the Monkees and Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. The sign was deemed an ''Objet d'Heart" by Time magazine, and featured in a 1983 Life magazine photo display. In 1987 an animated film immortalized the sign as Kenmore Square's ''neon god."

The most important aspect of the refurbishment in some people's minds was the effect it would have on the Red Sox, who have played in its shadow since the day it was constructed. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who had the sign lit up during the playoffs one year in an effort to aid the Sox, said he doesn't think the new lighting will make a difference in the quest for a second World Series victory.

''Nothing can change this team's luck," said Menino, who will unveil the refurbished sign at 5 p.m. tomorrow.

In the end, many said they will grow to love the new one, its light source notwithstanding. ''We are lucky to still have the sign," Krim said. ''It is still a great blessing on the Boston skyline."

Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this story.

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