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Baltimore’s renowned Domino Sugars sign is in safe hands

The Domino Sugars sign has glowed over the Inner Harbor for 70 years.
The Domino Sugars sign has glowed over the Inner Harbor for 70 years. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

There was apprehension when the news broke this week that the 70-year-old Domino Sugars sign was coming down from its perch atop the sugar refinery in Locust Point near Fort McHenry.

But connoisseurs of antique signs need not fear. Leading the construction of a replacement, letter-perfect, LED sign is the master of his field, Norman James, Baltimore’s preeminent sign maker and restorer.

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If you liked the Hippodrome sign that lights up Eutaw Street, Norman James and his crew made it. If you’ve ever admired the graceful canopy over the Parkway Theatre’s North Avenue front doors, James did that too.

“It is an honor to do this job. It will be a fabulous sign and well built. It has my blessing,” said James, who recalled that his maternal uncle, Bill Surland, helped install electricity to the sign in 1951.

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“He was a Domino electrician. I inherited his tools; they’re in my shed,” James said.

Visitors to James’s Glen Burnie outdoor sign garden know his collection, where he built a replica Little Tavern hamburger shop and keeps its neon glowing. He also owns a signage treasure from Greenmount Avenue — Waverly’s RCA Victor sign for the Radio Centre. The sign is a replica of a shellac 78 rpm disc surrounded by the neon Little Nipper terriers.

James said the Domino project will be his largest. The new LED sign will be made by the Gable Signs & Graphics shops on Fort Smallwood Road in Curtis Bay. When finished, it will cast its Halloween-orange radiance across the upriver waters of the Patapsco, as the old, original sign has since April 25, 1951.

“The original, in several dozen sections, was floated down on barges from New York,” James said. “The new sign will have to be built to go up in a freight elevator. We’ll have to use muscle.”

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New York’s Artkraft Strauss Co. built the original 1951 Domino sign. It was erected on site by Triangle Sign, then located near Eastpoint.

The Domino sign, which sits about 160 feet above the harbor, glows blood-orange and is a South Baltimore landmark. It has gone away, temporarily, before. The power was turned off for a time during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

“It’s a sign of hope. It shows you the industrial might of the city,” said Roland Park artist Greg Otto in a 2007 Sun article, when his painting of the Domino complex was made into a poster and postcards. “It’s as powerful as artist Edward Hopper’s imagery. The sign speaks to so many people.”

Otto said in the Sun article that the sugar refinery is “like someone who’s not glamorous or attractive, but you want them to be at a party. It’s not threatening.”

The Domino plant is older than its famous electric beacon by three decades. Ground was broken May 17, 1920, for this sugar refinery built on the harbor’s edge in Locust Point. It was served by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The cargo carrier SS Dixiana brought the first raw sugar to the plant, a photo dated March 17, 1922, reveals.

Baltimore has a distinguished sign legacy. The old Stieff Silver sign still adorns the roof of what is now a Johns Hopkins University Engineering building.

We’ve also lost quite a few — the amazing topper to the old Stanley Theater on Howard Street disappeared more than 50 years ago, as did the vertical signage for Lexington Street’s Century and Valencia theaters. The Metropolitan Theater in West Baltimore, where talking pictures arrived in 1929, made its presence known with a sign you could not miss.

And while it was not the largest, there was a winking and blinking sign at what is now Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It sat on Camden Station and flashed, in neon, GO, GO B&O.

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