Dominant symbol Domino: The sugar company's glowing neon sign lights up Baltimore's skyline, a guide to the lost, a friend to neighbors, a sign of home.

September 22, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It spells "Domino Sugars," but it says Baltimore.

And from its angled perch some 16 stories above the water, it speaks with an accent that is pure Bawlmer. No one even pronounces the final, 10-foot tall "s."

"I can see it from my kitchen window. When I'm sitting down eating dinner, I can see it," says Liz Hartlove, who runs a family bar on Fort Avenue and has spent all her 52 years in South Baltimore. "When you see that sign, you know you're home."

That sign is the second-largest field of neon on the East Coast; a 120-by-70-foot neon Polaris that has cast its blood-orange radiance across the the upriver waters of the Patapsco since April 25, 1951 -- 650 neon tubes searing a 760-amps-per-hour image into the psyche of Charm City.

All from the roof of a building known along the waterfront simply as "the sugar house."

"I love the red glow," says Dickie Gammerman, who lives on a boat in Fells Point. "And there's always this steam rising from it."

From nightfall until the time the bars close, the glow burns with enough energy to keep 15 households running, costing Domino about $70,000 a year to power and maintain it.

"It's our lighthouse," says Jenifer Ganzer, a local artist who has photographed the sign many times. "Whether you're looking at it from the front or back, it doesn't matter because it means the same thing -- Baltimore."

Even though the Domino Sugar Corp. plant generates its own power, the sign was turned off as a good-faith gesture in 1974 during the United States' energy crisis. By the time it returned in 1983, the Inner Harbor had been sugarcoated as a tourist attraction, and the icon gained thousands of new fans.

No one was more pleased than the folks who grew up with it in Locust Point.

Says Fort Avenue bar owner Larry Gross: "Day in and day out, it warms your heart."

A little bigger than a basketball court, the landmark assures the homesick they are near a place they love; the star by which intoxicated boaters navigate out of the Inner Harbor; and the incandescent soul of a city built not on pleasure -- as the modern waterfront's marinas might suggest -- but the kind of hard work that takes place in the refinery whose product the sign represents.

"It's a symbol of the fact that Baltimore has been importing raw materials and processing them into useful products for a long time," says Dennis Zembala, director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway, just around the bend from the sugar plant. "I can look right at it out of my office window. The red -- like heat, like sugar, which is energy -- gives the harbor a warm glow. I stare over there all the time."

A simple joy, gazing at such monochromatic brilliance.

"One warm summer night I was playing at a club in Locust Point and got lost," remembers Dave Giegerich, pedal steel guitarist for the Hula Monsters. "I turned down some street and WHOA! There it was, towering over me like an Edward Hopper painting."

Or better yet, a massive silk-screen by Andy Warhol, whose adopted home of New York has a smaller version at a Domino refinery on the East River. The company has closed plants in Philadelphia and Boston and maintains a third in New Orleans.

Baltimore's Domino sign is big enough that anyone cruising through town on Interstate 95 can see it, and foreigners who have been here but a few days recognize it as more than an advertisement for sugar.

"I was drawn to it," said visiting Russian artist Sergei Daniel in the fall of 1995, his easel atop Federal Hill and the sign's 32-foot high "D" in his sights.

High winds play havoc with the small glass posts and the copper wire that ties the neon tubes to the letters' metal housing. The letters are coated with porcelain enamel and glass that has cracked in places, letting in rain and causing rust.

Birds nest in the letters; unluckier ones break tubes by crashing into them, and bees overdose on the sticky residue that settles on the sign from the stacks of the refinery that has processed sugar on Key Highway since 1922.

Generations have known the romance of strolling near the sign on a summer night's date, but only a few have experienced the thrill of looking out over the city from it.

A lucky few, such as 32-year-old Gary Brent.

"Pick a day in May when it's 75 degrees and get on top [of] the sign, and there's no better place in the world to be," says Brent, whose company -- Installations Your Way -- has the contract to maintain the sign.

Gorgeous from the ground -- even if it's just a scarlet hint glimpsed from the crest of Caroline Street or the roof of the Broadway Recreation Pier -- the sign reveals itself on close inspection as a cold metal skeleton for hundreds of feet of 15-millimeter-gauge glass tubing.

Sometimes a side of the rectangular border goes out, rarely an entire letter. Each of the dozen letters has four strokes of neon so that even if, for example, three go out in the intricate, 18-foot-tall, lowercase "g," it will remain visible.

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