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Why is this Shell sign in Cambridge listed as a historic landmark?


“The flamboyance of the sign speaks to a different era.”

Cambridge Shell sign
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe, File

Sure, you know Boston’s Citgo sign perched near Fenway Park.

But that isn’t the only iconic luminescent advertisement for a gas company in the Greater Boston area. Just across the Charles River, flashing yellow and red lights in the shape of a scallop are illuminated above Memorial Drive spelling out another name: Shell. 

The Shell sign, situated at 187 Magazine St., has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994 and in 2010 was designated a historic landmark in Cambridge. 

So why, exactly, does a sign for a fossil fuel company have official landmark status in a liberal city known as “the People’s Republic of Cambridge”? 

It turns out there’s more than one factor at play in the sign’s historic significance. 

“It’s a landmark in the popular sense as well as being a designated landmark in the City of Cambridge because it’s large, it’s visible, and it commemorates a certain approach to advertising and public communication and design from an earlier era,” Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, recently told Boston.com.

It is an example of what are known as “spectacular” signs, which were originally lit by neon and proliferated in major cities, Sullivan said.

“The best known example today is the Citgo sign over in Kenmore Square,” he said. “This is very much in the same genre. It’s not as high up; it doesn’t have as great visibility.”

According to documentation filed with the National Register of Historic Places, the Shell sign is the only surviving “spectacular” sign in Cambridge — and one of the earliest remaining examples of the signs in the Boston area. 

“Constructed ten years after this technology was introduced in America, the Shell Sign represents an early use of neon illumination in combination with the incandescent lighted displays typical of late 19th-century advertising art,” the filing with the National Park Service reads.  

The 64-foot sign in the shape of the Shell Oil Company’s trademark was originally constructed in 1933 by Donnelly Electric Manufacturing Company, a prominent New England manufacturer of advertising signs, and installed across the river in Boston on the site of the Shell company’s 1930s regional headquarters.

Its original position over Commonwealth Avenue near what’s now called the Boston University Bridge had greater visibility, Sullivan said. 

And it wasn’t alone.

“It was one of a number of signs along Commonwealth Avenue, including the predecessor of the Citgo sign … a spouting oil derrick for a fuel oil company sign that was a spectacular sign on the Peter Fuller dealership on the opposite corner,” he said. “And then going out westward, there were any number of huge signs for what used to be Automobile Row and which is now mostly the BU campus, west campus area.”

The Shell sign, circa 1952, in Cambridge. – Cambridge Historical Commission

The Shell sign survived from the period by being moved to Magazine Street in Cambridge in 1944, according to Sullivan.

That location also has historic significance, since Memorial Drive was once the major traffic artery between Boston and the western suburbs, before Storrow Drive and the Mass. Pike were completed. 

“Memorial Drive was the major, major artery,” he said. “So it hits a whole lot of important points that come up when we consider designating something as a landmark.”

The sign made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, but Sullivan said that the state and federal designation — for building sites, locations, and objects that are important for their association with major cultural events or history — didn’t protect the sign from any changes the property owner might make on the site. 

Only a local historic designation actually protects a structure or site, he said.

For years, there was an effort in Cambridge to designate the sign as a landmark. 

“We went back to the City Council several times,” Sullivan said. “We were concerned that the property was in play for real estate development at one time and so the sign was threatened. We didn’t think a developer or an investor would seek to protect the sign [with the] construction with a major development on that site. So we felt some urgency about going to the City Council, and we managed finally to convince the council that this was a worthwhile thing to do, which we had some broad public support for doing.”

The sign became a city landmark in 2010, gaining the protections that it can’t be altered without approval from the city’s Historical Commission and it can’t be taken down. 

According to Sullivan, the current site owner is “enthusiastic” about maintaining the sign. The commission approved a major restoration of the sign in 2016 when it was converted from neon to LED lights. 

The lights may be different from days past, but the sign still follows the three-part, 14-second pattern it has for decades. 

First, light by light, the border of the shell is lit from the bottom to the top. Then the yellow “flutes” of the scallop sparkle upward from the hinge of the shell. The sign then blinks off momentarily before bursting back in full illumination.

“The flamboyance of the sign speaks to a different era and the history of roadside America,” Sullivan said. “Before traffic became so soul-deadening, before we were concerned about climate change, before so many things. [It was a] period of greater hope about more mobility and more flexibility for individuals, and that freedom of the open road that the motor age, early in the era, expressed. 

“This sign kind of symbolizes that,” he added.

Wickedpedia: Your unserious questions, seriously answered. Have a question about Greater Boston or New England you’ve always wondered about but never thought to ask? Boston.com’s new Wickedpedia series aims to track down the answers to these long-burning (often random) reader questions — the more obscure the better. Submit your question below or email it to [email protected], and if it’s selected, we’ll put a reporter on the case.

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