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Domino Sugar is replacing its massive neon sign in Baltimore — and hopes no one will notice the difference

The “Domino Sugars” sign, a Baltimore fixture that has cast its red neon glow across the Inner Harbor since 1951, will be retired March 1.

At sunset that day, the refinery’s rooftop will darken, but only for four months. Crews will remove and replace the 120-by-70-foot sign, one of the last, most visible vestiges of Baltimore’s once-mighty industrial past.

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If the $2 million project goes as planned, an LED-powered sign will light up on the Fourth of July and the sugar importer hopes no one notices the difference. The new sign will be more durable and environmentally friendly, but it is designed to match the look of the original.

“We want to keep it exactly the same,” said Tom Chagin, a Domino corporate engineer and the project manager.

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Sun photojournalist Karl Merton Ferron produced a time-lapse of views from Baltimore's iconic Domino Sugars sign in 2013.  (Baltimore Sun)

From its perch 160 feet above the harbor, the Domino sign has presided over 70 years of Baltimore history, becoming an enduring symbol of the city’s manufacturing heyday while many of the refinery’s industrial neighbors disappeared to make way for encroaching residential waterfront development.

The sign’s size and consistency has made it a favorite reference point for Baltimoreans in a constantly changing city. As other businesses have come and gone, most recently under the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sugar refinery continued to sweetly hum beneath the burning neon.

The sign’s prominence on the Baltimore skyline — for all but a brief stint during the energy crisis of the 1970s — has led to countless appearances in Baltimore-based television shows, movies, art, wedding photos and even tattoos.

Joseph Abel, the research historian at the neighboring Baltimore Museum of Industry, said the sign represents the spirit of Baltimore’s manufacturing heritage and serves as a reminder of the impressive longevity of the sugar refinery, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.

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“I can’t even imagine the city without it,” he said.

Ready for replacement

Several times a year, Domino receives calls from brides that have nothing to do with their dessert menus. Will the sign be lit for our waterfront reception on Saturday night? Could somebody repair one of the letters before then?

Originally fabricated by Artkraft Strauss Co., which made many of the signs in New York City’s Times Square, the hand-drawn letters were installed in 1951, three decades after the Domino refinery opened.

To appreciate the reason the company wants to replace it, you need to take an old freight elevator to the ninth floor, go past a few heavy steel doors, and climb some stairs and two rooftop ladders.

Decades of exposure to the Baltimore elements have left the yellow letters faded and rusting, with holes pockmarking the borders. Birds and high winds have broken some of the 650 unprotected neon tubes stretching 4,400 linear feet, and rainwater has infiltrated the connectors. It’s expensive to maintain, and few “neon benders,” the craftsmen who can repair it, remain in business.

The company hasn’t settled on what to do with the old sign once it’s removed.

“We’re going to need to get a better look at the letters as they come down to determine what can be saved,” said Peter O’Malley, a Domino spokesman. “We would like to give them to museums or other nonprofits if there is interest.”

Domino Sugar is among the small number of refineries that is seeing an increase in imported sugar due to the terrible sugar beet harvest in the U.S.

Officials recently hung pieces of the LED sign’s “g” on the old one to make sure it matches. It might appear brighter at first because of the fresh paint, despite using 33,000 fewer kilowatt hours of energy and producing 23.48 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Flexible LED tubing is expected to be far more durable than the delicate glass neon tubes.

Switching out the 12- to 20-foot letters presented a challenge. Chagin considered various options: a crane on a barge, a crane from the rear of the refinery, even a helicopter. All proved too costly or impractical. After six months of planning, he settled on another strategy: elevators.

Workers will carry pieces of the new, aluminum letters up nine floors in one freight elevator, then one more floor in another. They will guide them carefully through a 10th-floor window to the roof, then use pulleys to hang them on the recently reinforced steel frame on the rooftop.

Fittingly, the new sign is being manufactured locally.

Paul Gable, owner of Gable, a sign design and manufacturing firm in Curtis Bay, said he is using a straight-on drone photo to reproduce what he called “a rare classic,” at a scale 50 times larger than a normal storefront 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 about not just this sign being re-lit” he said, “but hopefully being there to stay for as long as the first one was.”

‘Blue-collar to the core’

Steve Vaughn, a tattoo artist who goes by the nickname “Stevie Monie,” has inked the Domino sign on the skin of several customers over 20 years in the business.

It isn’t as common a request as the Maryland flag or the National Bohemian logo, said Vaughn, who owns 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.

The "Domino Sugars" sign's prominence on the city skyline has led to countless appearances in Baltimore-based television shows, movies, art, wedding photos and even tattoos. (Photo courtesy of Domino Sugar)
The "Domino Sugars" sign's prominence on the city skyline has led to countless appearances in Baltimore-based television shows, movies, art, wedding photos and even tattoos. (Photo courtesy of Domino Sugar) (courtesy of Domino Sugar)

Domino is “a huge brand that helped probably sustain a lot of families and build a lot of lives off of the incomes,” said Vaughn, who mentions Bethlehem Steel, a former Baltimore manufacturing powerhouse that employed tens of thousands who made the steel that built the nation, in the same breath.

“A city like ours, Baltimore, is built on that,” he said. “We’re blue-collar to the core, starting from the bottom, working our way up-type people. That’s what pride is really all about, knowing where you come from and staying humble.”

That hometown pride is why some people seek the tattoo.

“It’s a staple for our city,” Vaughn said. “We, oddly enough, are proud of that little thing — something as simple as Domino Sugar coming from here.”

The Domino sign is beloved Baltimoreans and visitors alike, said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.

The red glow reflecting across the water from the refinery rooftop each night is “part of Baltimore’s history that is still living,” she said.

“I’ve got to applaud them for recognizing that and the important role it plays in Baltimore and our identity,” Schwartz said. “Let’s all hope most people will not be able to tell the difference.”

‘A connection to the neighborhood’

Snow blanketed the outdoor furniture Monday night on Dan Strodel’s rooftop deck in Riverside, which offers a postcard-worthy view of the Inner Harbor.

He’s taken hundreds of photos of the harbor, often waking up at sunrise to capture the moment when the light of dawn meets the glow of the still-lit Domino sign.

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Strodel, 59, compared the sign to the giant Bromo Seltzer bottle that once adorned the tower of the same name and the advertisements once painted on the brick exteriors of many small businesses. Part of its beauty is in its old-timey simplicity, he said, “blasting out to the world: ‘We make sugar.’”

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The new sign is Domino’s latest and highest-profile investment in its relationship with its residential neighbors. The company sends holiday cards and welcome packages to new homeowners. It sponsors the Locust Point Civic Association, as well as the Riverside Neighborhood Association‘s summer concert series. It paid for a backstop and dugouts at a neighborhood little league field.

It isn’t just because the refinery relies on dredging, which is partially taxpayer funded, for sugar ships to reach its piers.

Tom Chagin, corporate engineer and project manager for the sign restoration, under the Domino Sugars sign. The landmark that overlooks the Inner Harbor will go dark March 1. The 1951 neon sign will be replaced with an aluminum one with LEDs, but is being built to the original specifications and color. The company plans to light up the new sign for the first time on the 4th of July.
Tom Chagin, corporate engineer and project manager for the sign restoration, under the Domino Sugars sign. The landmark that overlooks the Inner Harbor will go dark March 1. The 1951 neon sign will be replaced with an aluminum one with LEDs, but is being built to the original specifications and color. The company plans to light up the new sign for the first time on the 4th of July. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

“We’re proud of the fact that it’s become a beloved part of the Baltimore skyline,” said O’Malley, the Domino spokesman. “It’s important to us to be a good neighbor.”

Few of the 510 full-time Baltimore refinery employees and the 120 workers in related jobs in maritime, trucking and warehousing still walk to work the way many did decades ago.

But at least one is a neighbor of Strodel’s in Riverside, he said.

“What’s neat is to see him get up early and walk out the door, and he’s headed down to work at Domino, and the sign is looking right at him,” he said. “There’s still a connection to the neighborhood.”

Rust and wear is visible under a letter in the Domino Sugars sign. The landmark that overlooks the Inner Harbor will go dark March 1. The 1951 neon sign will be replaced with an aluminum one with LED lights.
Rust and wear is visible under a letter in the Domino Sugars sign. The landmark that overlooks the Inner Harbor will go dark March 1. The 1951 neon sign will be replaced with an aluminum one with LED lights. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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