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Taking in the sunset with the Domino sign

By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

11:34 PM EDT, June 30, 2013

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As much of Baltimore finishes its work day, the Domino sign is just warming up.

Literally.

Each evening, it takes 15 minutes from the moment the timer clicks on for the noble gases to be ready to paint the town red. Showtime zips through hundreds of miles of wire and 230 transformers until it makes a grand entrance in 650 elongated glass tubes bent into the shapes that spell out America's No. 1 brand of sugar.

The result is picture perfect. Countless people have made the sign the backdrop for snapshots. People have called the refinery or arrived unannounced at the front gate, begging to have the sign illuminated just for them.

"You're suddenly talking to someone who's having a birthday or bar mitzvah and they want you to turn the sign on," says Mickey Seither, who was in charge of the Domino sign for a decade and is now a senior vice president. "And I'm like, 'Well, I can. But it's noon. You won't see it.'"

Few people, other than maintenance crews, get to see the sign at rooftop-level.

Up close, close enough to touch, the sign looks every minute of its 62 years. Baltimore may be in a temperate zone, but the elements can be quite intemperate. Rain and wind, cold and heat have scoured the metal surfaces, front and back, and the latticework of girders, cables and turnbuckles that keep the sign whole.

But when nature's light fades to black, the wrinkles and kinks disappear in a blaze of crimson.

In a world that craves cutting edge, the Domino Sugars sign is decidedly not.

Its very lifeblood, neon, is being replaced around the world by LED lights that are more efficient and easier to change. That's not likely to happen in Baltimore anytime soon, company officials say.

A battery-powered timer similar to ones found in homes serves as the gatekeeper.

Reaching the sign is strictly old fashioned, too. A freight elevator ride up nine stories leads to a series of massive steel doors and then 26 steps to the roof. A ladder and then a smaller ladder take you to the sign's base. An even tinier ladder threads its way skyward, over the logo's frame, to the left of the "a" and between the "i" and the "n."

Open your eyes and admire the view.

The cityscape arcs through working waterfront to tightly packed row homes to upscale marinas and condos to the downtown. Sailboats tack and duel in fierce contests while party boats and the water taxi churn on their way. Urban sounds are devoured by the industrial bump and grind of a factory making sugar.

The faint scent of caramel perfumes the air and surfaces are sticky to the touch.

It's not yet sundown, so you can see people at a nearby BP station pumping gas, grabbing coffee. Below, tractor trailers come and go, loading up on sugar.

If you are one of those directionally challenged people flummoxed by the nooks and crannies of the Inner Harbor, the platform of the Domino sign will help you sort it out.

Puny neon signs around town do their best to call attention to themselves, but they can't hold a candle to the 12 letters within a frame of 120 feet by 70 feet.

The Domino sign has been compared in size to a basketball court. That's a complete injustice. Try this: the entire square footage of the Camden Yards infield would fit comfortably within its border; four F-35 fighter jets could park nose to tail, wingtip to wingtip inside; a space shuttle orbiter would balance on the frame with just a wee bit hanging over the edges.

It's that big.

For the repairmen of Triangle Sign, another Baltimore institution, the twice-monthly routine house calls are a reminder of scale.

"You have to climb the girders to get to the letters. There's no easy access," says Bob Kaye, Triangle's executive vice president. "It's a good training ground. If you don't get scared going up there, you're going to be OK elsewhere."

There are wires to splice, tubes to replace and nesting birds to chase.

"You just hope you're not chasing an eagle or hawk," Kaye laughs.

At 40-feet high, the Domino D is the biggest letter and has as much neon tubing as several of its neighbors combined. But the showoff is the lower-case "g," with its tight curves and sprightly pigtail.

Jeffrey Blomster, an associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University in Washington, has a perfect view of the sign from his third-floor home study on East Fort Avenue.

"It's one of the reasons I moved here," says Blomster. "It symbolizes an industrial, urban feel that D.C. doesn't have."

If the sign has a weakness, it's that it is one dimensional.

For some landmarks — the Washington Monument and St. Louis Arch, for example — it doesn't matter on which side you stand.

But people prefer a head-on view of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore. So, too, the Domino Sugars (the "s" is visible but silent) sign.

"There's nothing much back there," Seither says. "Some sheet metal bolted over the backs of the letters."

The waterfronts of Boston, New Orleans and Brooklyn also used to be lighted by Domino.

The Boston sign was dismantled when the refinery relocated. The Big Easy's sign blew away decades ago and was never replaced. The Brooklyn sign remains, but the building is now pricey waterfront real estate.

"Baltimore's the only sign we still own that says Domino," Seither says.

People in the neighborhood are quick to demand that their night light remain on.

"All you have to do is call the front gate, the main number, and the guards will answer," Seither says. "They get on the radio and call the electrician and he runs up there and makes sure everything is OK."

And how many workers does it take to change a Domino light bulb?

For the record, it takes two.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Hidden Maryland is an occasional series taking readers to places that are normally off limits to most Marylanders. Have a suggestion for a next location? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/hiddenthoughts.

Online

Watch time-lapse video and see more photos at baltimoresun.com.

Domino Sugars sign

Where: 1100 Key Highway East in the Locust Point neighborhood

You would never have guessed: That the city's sounds are no match for the roar of refining 6.5 million pounds of raw sugar a day.