Boston’s Neon: The White Fuel Sign

Hotel Buckminster, White Fuel Sign, Kenmore Square, Boston

The White Fuel Sign atop the Hotel Buckminster

For the people of Boston and the far-flung residents of Red Sox Nation, the iconic CITGO Sign near Fenway Park possesses powers both sentimental and powerful. Restored, protected and upgraded, it dominates Kenmore Square and appears on tee shirts, in memes, and in the press. The CITGO Sign has become an unofficial mascot of the Boston Red Sox.

My favorite neon sign in Boston, however, disappeared decades ago. Once, the White Fuel Sign rose from the roof of the Buckminster Hotel and faced the Cities Service Sign that later became the CITGO Sign. It was one of three oil company signs in Kenmore Square, along with a Gulf sign that rose where Boston University is now.

While both White Fuel and Cities Service advertised oil companies and both were automated, I always preferred the White Fuel sign.

A Sparkling Gusher

White Fuel Sign, Kenmore Square, Boston, neon

The gusher at night

This neon advertisement provided us with a deceptive view of an oil derrick, one that converted a gusher of black oil to a sparkling fountain.

First, the derrick lit up in white; then a blue gusher shot into the air. It curved over to the right and filled up the letters that spelled out “White.” After that, the words “Fuel” and “Corporation,” blinked on in cursive.

A separate, non-automated, sign beneath the big one said, “A Leader in New England for Over Forty Years.”

The White Fuel Company

The origins of the White Fuel Sign go back farther than you may have thought. John R. White & Sons Coal Company was started in Providence in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln was president. It soon became one of the largest distributors of coal in Rhode Island. In the 1930s Samuel White added fuel oil to the company’s products and changed the name to White Fuel Company.

The White family sold the company to long-time employee Harold Gower in 1946. When Harold’s son Richard (Dick) returned from College in 1960, he took over the company. Over the next forty-six years, Mr. Gower grew the business through sales and marketing as well as through 17 acquisitions.

On Valentine’s day in 2007 White Fuel sold their assets to Griffith Energy Services. Thus, the company outlasted the sign by decades.

The White Fuel Sign’s History

The sign began its life in the 1940s atop the old Westminster Hotel at the southwest end of Kenmore Square. We can see it under construction in the photo below. If not within home-run distance of Fenway Park, it was a lot closer to the left field wall than the Citgo Sign.

Kenmore Square, Boston, White Fuel, Cities Service, Gulf, neon signs

Kenmore Square in 1940 with Cities Service (right), White Fuel (center) under construction and Gulf in the distance Photo: CITGO

The Westminster Hotel later became the Hotel Buckminster and the sign persisted. It was still extant when I went to Northeastern University. The sign made oil look clean and attractive but I loved watching the light rise up, fall over, and fill up the letters over and over again. It was so much more interesting than the Citgo Sign’s in-out pattern.

The Neon Boneyard

The White Fuel Sign was demolished in the early 1970s after I had left Boston. When I returned, only the Citgo Sign remained. Few people now remember the old neon advertisement, but it was one of many iconic neon signs that once lit up the Boston skyline.

Not everyone likes neon advertising signs or think they improve a city. Neon signs were once ubiquitous in the 1930s but fell out of favor in the more sophisticated 1970s. I consider many of them to be kinetic art with hand-made tubing and they add life, color and movement to a city. They even buzz.

Las Vegas, home of the country’s most oversize, garish, and tacky neon signs, preserves many of their old outdated ads in the Neon Boneyard Museum. The collection celebrates “the history of Las Vegas through neon.” You can visit and even get married there.

A Neon Second Life

Flying Yankee Restaurant, Rose Kennedy Greenway, Joann Vitali, neon exhibit

The Flying Yankee on the Greenway Photo: Joann Vitali

Boston doesn’t have a neon boneyard, much less a museum. Granted, New England’s difficult climate does not support that sort of thing. Neon stacked in an open-air museum like the one in Las Vegas’s Mojave Desert would not last long. Housing any number of the signs would require a very large building like MassMOCA. Even then, I’m not sure the White Fuel Sign would have fit.

Last year we did get an exhibit of iconic local neon on the Rose Kennedy Greenway and I loved it. Signs for the old European, Fontaine’s Chicken, and Flying Yankee restaurants lit up again. State Line Potato Chips, The Cycle Center of Natick, and GE Radio all got a second, if temporary, life. The exhibit added a real pop to the Greenway after dark and I loved driving past.

Where Have They Gone?

Where are the rest? In future posts, I will try to pay attention to some other neon signs, both extant and long gone. I know what signs I remember but which signs were your favorites? What neon (probably flexible LED lights) ones do you like now? And which ones do you miss?

I would really like to know.

NOTE: Why were there so many signs for gasoline and oil companies in Kenmore Square? The reason might be that someone wishing to purchase a car would most likely go through the square to reach the section of Commonwealth Avenue in Allston that was known as Automobile Row. You can learn more about this early version of the AutoMile on HUBhistory’s podcast #180: “Ghosts and Shadows of Automobile Row with Ken Liss.”

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10 thoughts on “Boston’s Neon: The White Fuel Sign

  1. Your reference to Harold Gower with respect to the White Fuel sign in Kenmore Square is incorrect. I was fascinated to learn of another “White Fuel” company in Providence, which Mr. Gower owned. The White Fuel Corporation in Boston was owned by my father, John P. Birmingham, and obviously was a separate company. The sign was of course visible from the first base side at Fenway, and it played no small part, I’m sure, in establishing White Fuel as the “New England’s largest independent oil supplier”, or NELIOS, the name on Dad’s boat. Anyway, I’m enlightened on the subject and hope you are too. Thanks for the depth of your blog. I’m writing a novel set in Boston in 1961, and will use your articles for historical references. Thanks.

  2. It was nice to come across this post, as I am currently researching Kenmore Square and its “Auto Row” that extended to B.U. My interest in neon signs, specifically the White Fuel sign, is actually what brought me to your post. There is a lot of conflicting info about when the sign was removed, in the ‘70s or as late as 1982. But this is not a critical thing I need to know nearly 4-5 decades later.

    I’d like to recommend a cool “Indian head” neon sign in a 1956 photo taken of a Pontiac dealer located at 860 Commonwealth Ave., which has to be among the best I have seen. At the time, according to its window sign, it was called Peters Pontiac Village.

    In the 1974-75 school year, I attended Grahm Junior College, which went defunct in 1979 but is still loved by its many grads (I am not one). The dorm was located in the old Kenmore Hotel, now called Kenmore Abbey, at 490 Commonwealth Avenue. I attended one of my classes, I believe either sociology or psychology, in the Buckminster Hotel building, which was one of several annexes Grahm leased at the time. But sadly I was oblivious to, and did not care about, neon signs as I do today, as someone who has done sign work in Tucson since 1983.

    I grew up in Gardner, MA and went to a few Red Sox games as a kid, maybe from 1963-67, even got Brooks Robinson’s autograph on a baseball in 1966 as he stood near the team bus behind the park. Oh, and Rico Petrocelli’s, too. (Thanks for that assist, Dad!). The ball might be worth something but the ink soaked into the leather and became unreadable within about 7 years…c’est la vie.

    Anyway, I recently read that Andy Kaufman lived in the Buckminster Hotel for a time; he was a 1971 graduate of Grahm who went on to appear on Saturday Night Live a few times beginning in its first season in ’75.

    I am also interested in finding out about that nearby Gulf sign, so eventually that mystery may be answered as well.

    Thanks for the post, as interest in neon seems to be having a resurgence. How short-sighted we were back when it was suddenly considered a thing of the past.

    • Thanks for writing, Kevin. One consequence of our short-sightedness about neon signs is that so few mentions of them exists, except for the CITGO sign near Fenway Park. I have found it difficult to locate any information, including when they went up, when they came down, and why. Needless to say, pictures can be even more difficult to find. Given that you went to school near the old Automobile Row on Commonwealth Avenue, you may enjoy listening to the HUBhistory podcast about it. Just put on your earbuds and go to: http://www.hubhistory.com/?s=Automobile+Row

      It’s too bad you missed the 2019 exhibit of old neon signs on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. I would have liked it to stay up forever.

      • Were the white Fuel sign and the old city services signs actually neon signs? I have been a friend for many years of C I Brink’s grandson and he tells me that they were synchronized incandescent lights

  3. I’m almost 50 now and recall seeing the White Fuel sign while watching Sox games but don’t think it was lit up. This was in the late 1970s -early 80s. My favorite has to be the Coca Cola sign on Soldiers Fiield Rd by the Mass Pike that was turned off in 1984 and mysteriously disappeared despite efforts to bring it back. There was an article in the globe about this recently.

  4. Two oldies but goodies come to mind- the huge Anheuser-Busch logo on the side of the Garden facing the Central Artery. Multicolored, it lit up in sequence, and at the end the wings of the eagle flapped and one atop a building near Dock Square and also facing the Central Artery which advertised Handschumacher “Frankfort’s”, a local brand. Aside from the name in script there was a sky rocket feature as a line of white lights gradually lit from the bottom and mushroomed at the top into a twinkling cascade. I think both signs came down in the 60’s. BTW Handschumacher in German means glovemaker, a process I suppose is akin to making “force meats” like hot dogs & sausages

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