Hell is in Cambridge? A letter is out on iconic Shell sign

The Shell sign in Cambridge read “hell” this week after the lights in the “S” went out.
Sarah Betancourt
The Shell sign in Cambridge read “hell” this week after the lights in the “S” went out.

It’s been a long time since Tibor Hangyal has had to deal with “hell” at work. But this week he found himself facing it once again.

Hangyal runs the Shell service station on Magazine Street in Cambridge. An iconic illuminated “Shell” sign has long floated above the business he operates.

Now, for the first time since the large neon sign was rehabbed and replaced in 2011, the lights on the “S” have somehow gone out, so it says “HELL” over the clamshell logo instead.


“We have been having trouble with half of the ‘L’ — the middle ‘L’ — half of it was going out,” Hangyal said. “We haven’t had trouble with the ‘S’ at all for years.”

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The last time the “S” didn’t work, and the H-E-double-hockey-sticks burned in the sky, was nearly two decades ago, when the original Shell sign, first built in 1933, still rose above the building near Memorial Drive.

That sign had deteriorated over the years so much that its metal pieces would disintegrate into dust if you touched them, Hangyal said. It was finally replaced with the current shinier version, complete with LED lights, eight years ago.

“I’ve been saving up the pennies for a decade,’’ Hangyal told the Globe the night that the new sign was turned on for the first time, with the help of corporate. “Every customer in the neighborhood has been kicking in a couple of cents per gallon.’’

Hangyal said this week that he hadn’t noticed anything wrong with the sign because he typically leaves the shop at 7 p.m., when it’s still light out during the summer.

Jennifer Bruni

The sign, which is a designated historic landmark, isn’t turned on until around an hour after he’s gone. But he’s not sure why a shop attendant didn’t catch the glitch.

“Nobody noticed it. Nobody flagged me or said anything,” he said, after the Globe sent him photos. “I’m not sure how they didn’t — and I have Shell people in the area. They drive by on the way home. But maybe summertime everyone goes home before it gets dark.”

While workers may not have noticed, people on social media certainly have. In the last week, at least three people tweeted images of the unintentional spelling mishap, adding witty remarks.

“I knew cambridge had gone downhill since crema closed but damn,” WBUR-FM reporter Martin Kessler wrote in a tweet last week that included a picture of the sign and seemed to please some of his followers.

Sarah Betancourt, a reporter for Commonwealth magazine, was out in Cambridge on Monday night when she witnessed it. She said a group of elderly people was also there snapping photos of the sign when she came across it.


“Says one: ‘I wonder if the internet knows about this,’ ” Betancourt tweeted.

Another environmentally minded person posted a picture of “HELL” to social media Tuesday night, writing, “Gasoline powered vehicles have created hell on earth.”

Hangyal said while it’s slightly amusing, it’s also not great for business.

“I get a kick out of it, kind of, but it’s almost embarrassing,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh boy.’ ”

Hangyal, who has been the franchise owner for more than two decades, said he’s planning on contacting Shell officials, who own the sign and the property, to have them come and check it out.

He said typically someone comes every six months to tend to the sign and make sure all the bulbs and wires are in working order, and it’s about that time anyway.

Until it’s fixed, Hangyal said, he’ll probably have to keep “hell” turned off.

“It’s a good landmark; it just needs some love once in a while,” he said. “It will be back in working order soon.”

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.