Domino Sugars sign is equated with city

A favorite of artists and filmmakers, and view of it confers bragging rights

November 03, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun reporter

Its dimensions and power inspire urban awe: the second-largest field of neon on the East Coast, a 120-by-70-foot spectacular electrical blaze that has cast its blood-orange radiance across the upriver waters of the Patapsco since April 25, 1951.

"The sign has 650 neon tubes searing a 760-amps-per-hour image into the psyche of Charm City," as a Sun article described it a decade ago.

Baltimore's iconic Domino Sugars sign (the final S is never pronounced, nor is it part of the company's official name) is routinely filmed in movies and television series. Artists love to paint it. Downtown residents brag that you can see the sign from their windows or decks.

"It's Baltimore," said local artist Robert McClintock. "It means you are home. It's the anchor of the whole harbor scene. I love neon. I love history."

McClintock has four different views of the sign in his Fells Point Gallery.

"I sold two this morning. It's a very popular subject," he said.

The Domino sign, which sits elevated about 160 feet above the harbor, casts a Halloween-orange glow visible throughout the metro area. Baltimoreans hated when the sign was extinguished for a period during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

"It's a sign of hope. It shows you the industrial might of the city," said artist Greg Otto, whose painting of the Domino complex has been made into a poster and imprinted upon thousands of postcards. "It's as powerful as artist Edward Hopper's imagery. The sign speaks to so many people."

Otto said 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." He said the complex of Domino buildings contrasts "nicely with the modern harbor."

Film director Barry Levinson, who grew up in Baltimore, featured the sign in two of his films, Diner (1981) and Tin Men (1987). It also has appeared in TV's Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire as well as the film He Said She Said.

The sign itself was an afterthought to the sugar refinery originally constructed by the American Sugar Refining Co. It went up on the refinery's roof nearly three decades after the "sugar house," as workers call it, began operation more than 80 years ago.

As Baltimore's harbor became an established middle-class residential destination in the 1980s - and tourists began taking the water taxis - the sign assumed a new visibility and importance.

"It's bragging rights if you can see the sign," said real estate salesman Roland Shumate. "It's kind of like the `Hon' expression. It's just cool to be able to see the Domino sign. Does seeing it increase a house's value? I don't know. But it doesn't hurt."

Ground was broken May 17, 1920, for the Locust Point sugar refinery, which was constructed alongside the Patapsco River and the rail tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. A photo of the plant taken March 17, 1922, shows the first shipment of raw sugar to the plant. It arrived via the SS Dixiana.

"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," the 1996 article said.

The sign was built by New York's Artkraft Strauss Co. - which has made nearly all the huge Times Square neon signs. It was installed by Triangle Sign, a local business. The Baltimore Domino's only rival is the Newport cigarette sign on the Cross Bronx Expressway, which measures 150 feet by 63 and a half.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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