The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — The “Domino Sugars” sign, a Baltimore fixture that has cast its red neon glow across the Inner Harbor since 1951, will be removed March 1.
At sunset that day, the roof of the refinery will darken, but only for four months.
Crews will remove and replace the 120-by-70-foot sign, one of the most visible remnants of Baltimore’s once mighty industrial past.
If the $2 million project goes as planned, an LED sign will light up on July 4 and the sugar importer hopes no one notices the difference.
The new panel will be more durable and environmentally friendly, but is designed to match the look of the original.
“We want it to stay exactly the same,” said Tom Chagin, Domino company engineer and project manager.
From its perch 160 feet above the harbor, the Domino sign has presided over more than 70 years of Baltimore’s history, becoming an enduring symbol of the city’s manufacturing heyday, while many of Baltimore’s industrial neighbors the refinery have disappeared to make way for an encroaching waterfront residential development.
The sign’s size and consistency have made it a favorite reference point for Baltimoreans in an ever-changing city. As other businesses came and went, most recently under the financial pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sugar refinery continued to hum softly under the burning neon.
The sign’s prominence on the Baltimore skyline – for all but a brief stint during the energy crisis of the 1970s – led to countless appearances in TV shows, movies, artwork, Baltimore-based wedding photos and even tattoos.
Joseph Abel, a research historian at the nearby Baltimore Museum of Industry, said the sign represents the spirit of Baltimore’s manufacturing heritage and is a reminder of the impressive longevity of the sugar refinery, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.
“I can’t even imagine the city without her,” he said.
Ready for replacement
Several times a year, Domino receives calls from brides who have nothing to do with their dessert menu. Will the sign be on for our Saturday night waterfront reception? Could someone fix one of the letters before that?
Originally made by Artkraft Strauss Co., which made many of New York’s Times Square signs, the hand-drawn letters were installed in 1951, three decades after the opening of the Domino Refinery.
To figure out why the company wants to replace it, you need to take an old dumbwaiter to the ninth floor, pass some heavy steel doors, and climb some stairs and two ladders to the roof.
Decades of exposure to Baltimore’s elements have left the yellow lettering faded and rusty, with holes marking the edges. Birds and high winds snapped some of the 650 unprotected neon tubes spanning 4,400 linear feet, and rainwater seeped into the connectors. Its maintenance is expensive, and few “neon benders”, the craftsmen capable of repairing it, remain in activity.
The company has not decided what to do with the old sign once it is removed.
“We’re going to have to take a better look at the letters as they come in to determine what can be salvaged,” said Peter O’Malley, a Domino spokesman. “We would like to donate them to museums or other non-profits if there is interest.”
Authorities recently hung pieces of the “g” from the LED panel on the old one to make sure it would fit.
It may appear brighter at first because of fresh paint, despite consuming 33,000 kilowatt hours less energy and producing 23.48 metric tons less carbon dioxide per year. Flexible LED tubes should be much more durable than delicate glass neon tubes.
Changing the letters from 12 to 20 feet was a challenge. Chagin considered various options: a crane on the barge, a crane at the rear of the refinery, or even a helicopter. All turned out to be too expensive or impractical. After six months of planning, he decided on another strategy: elevators.
Workers will transport pieces of the new aluminum letters up nine stories in a freight elevator, then one more story in another. They will carefully guide them through a 10th floor window to the roof, then use pulleys to hook them to the newly reinforced steel frame on the roof.
As it should be, the new panel is made locally.
Paul Gable, owner of Gable, a sign design and manufacturing company in Curtis Bay, said he used direct drone photography to replicate what he called “a rare classic”, at 50 times scale larger than a normal window sign.
Gable can’t wait for the reveal at nightfall on Independence Day.
“The City of Baltimore has every reason to be really, really excited not just to have this sign back on,” he said, “but hopefully to be here to stay this long. than the first.”
“Blue Collar to the Core”
Steve Vaughn, a tattoo artist nicknamed “Stevie Monie”, has inked the Domino sign on the skin of several clients for more than 20 years in the business.
It’s not as common a request as the Maryland flag or the National Bohemian logo, said Vaughn, owner of New American Tattoo Co. on Eastern Avenue. But those who get Baltimore or Maryland-themed tattoo sleeves usually ask to include the Domino sign somewhere, alongside crabs, black-eyed Susans, Orioles, and Ravens.
Domino is “a huge brand that has probably helped support a lot of families and built a lot of lives through income,” said Vaughn, who cites Bethlehem Steel, a former Baltimore manufacturing powerhouse that employed tens of thousands of people who made the steel that built the nation, in the same breath.
“A city like ours, Baltimore, is built on that,” he said. “We are blue collar to the core, starting at the bottom, working up the type people. That’s pride, knowing where you come from and staying humble.
This hometown pride is why some people seek out the tattoo.
“It’s a staple for our city,” Vaughn said. “Strangely enough, we’re proud of this little thing – something as simple as Domino Sugar coming from here.”
The Domino sign is beloved by Baltimoreans and visitors alike, said Laurie Schwartz, president of Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership.
The red glow reflecting off the water from the refinery roof each night is “part of Baltimore’s history that is still alive,” she said.
“I have to applaud them for acknowledging that and the important role he plays in Baltimore and in our identity,” Schwartz said. “Hopefully most people can’t tell the difference.”
“A connection with the neighborhood”
Snow blanketed outdoor furniture Monday night on Dan Strodel’s rooftop terrace in the Riverside neighborhood, which offers postcard-worthy views of the inner harbor.
He took hundreds of photos of the harbour, often waking up at sunrise to capture the moment when the light of dawn meets the glow of the still-lit Domino sign.
Strodel, 59, compared the sign to the giant bottle of Bromo Seltzer that once adorned the tower of the same name and to the advertisements once painted on the brick facades of many small businesses. Part of its beauty is its old-world simplicity, he said, “saying to the whole world, ‘We’re making sugar.'”
The new sign is Domino’s most recent and high-profile investment in its relationship with its residential neighbors. The company sends greeting cards and welcome kits to new owners. It sponsors the Locust Point Civic Association, as well as the Riverside Neighborhood Association’s summer concert series. He paid for a safety net and dugouts on a neighborhood little league field.
It’s not just because the refinery depends on dredging, which is partly funded by taxpayers, to bring sugar ships to its docks.
“We are proud that it has become a beloved part of the Baltimore skyline,” said O’Malley, Domino’s spokesperson. “It’s important for us to be a good neighbour.
Few of the Baltimore refinery’s 510 full-time employees and 120 workers in related maritime, trucking and warehousing jobs still walk to work the way many did decades ago.
But at least one is a neighbor of Strodel in Riverside, he said.
“What’s good is seeing him get up early and walk out the door, and he’s walking to work at Domino’s, and the sign is looking at him,” he said. “There is always a connection with the neighborhood.”
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
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