Restoring an Icon: Domino Sugars Sign

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As 2022 approaches, it’s time to reflect on the past year’s major achievements in the field of experiential graphic design. This includes the “remastering” of the famous Domino Sugars sign in Baltimore, Maryland. SEGD member firm Gable recently restored this iconic—and much loved—landmark of Baltimore’s cityscape. Read on to learn about the unique challenges that Gable met in the fabrication and installation of this famous symbol. 

Every city has its own distinctive landmarks for which it is famous. For some, it might be a building (think New York’s Empire State) or a bridge (San Francisco’s Golden Gate) or a monument (Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial) or even a fountain (Tyler Davidson in Cincinnati) …

… okay, maybe the Trevi Fountain in Rome is a better-known example!

In Baltimore, the massive “Domino Sugars” sign presides over the city’s historic waterfront, serving as a symbol of civic pride since 1951. Here, in Charm City, the sign not only functions as a commercial advertisement for the American Sugar Refineries company (ASR Group), but also as a kind of “Welcome to Baltimore” greeting.

“Even though the sign doesn’t say ‘Welcome to Baltimore,’ it is iconic in the sense that it represents the city’s industrial heritage,” explains SEGD member, Paul Gable, CEO & President of Gable. “The feeling people have when they see this sign is absolutely amazing; so many people care so much about it.”

And the citizens of Baltimore certainly do care!  They care enough to have had the sign restored. After 70 years of exposure to the elements, the 120-by-70-foot sign was falling apart. Its steel framework was rusted, the giant letters needed repair, and the neon lighting was failing. (The “o” at the end of “Domino” no longer lit up!) ASR Group chose Gable (headquartered in Baltimore) to re-design, build, and install the new letters and lighting for the much-loved sign.

The commission came with its own set of challenges, chief among them, reassuring the citizens of Baltimore that the Domino Sugars sign would be properly restored.

“People in the city were concerned about the sign and wanted to make sure it looked the same (after restoration),” said Bill Sackmann, VP of Construction Services and Quality Management at Gable. “It represents the city, which is why so many people feel a sense of ownership.”

From the beginning, a shared goal of ASR Group and Gable was to maintain the visual integrity of the sign’s design and lighting while taking advantage of as many modern-day fabrication methods, sustainable materials, and lighting technologies as possible. The decision was made to completely rebuild the sign’s letters, rather than repair the old letters along with the neon lighting system.

“Over 70 years, coatings of sugar from the vapors coming up from the plant created a costly situation. The existing letters required an annual service contract that was very expensive and was getting more expensive every year,” explains Bill. “But the company that was servicing the sign could not get it to operate 100% for any length of time. You would fix one letter and the other letter would go out.”

To update the technology and ensure the best craftsmanship, Gable fabricated the new aluminum letters and LED system inside the company’s state-of-the-art shop. The new letters—complete with flexible LED tubing—were then transported to the refinery and installed on site.

“To get the graceful curves of these letters, at this size, it was an almost impossible feat unless you do it within a controlled environment,” says Paul. “This cost a little bit more money, but for all the dollars spent building scaffolding, and all the dollars spent on the extra crew hours on site, we saved money in the long run.”

And even though it was tricky moving the letters through the refinery, up industrial sized elevators, and onto the sign’s rooftop location, this process reduced the amount of risk to property as well as to the health and safety of the onsite workers. The final product maintains the look and feel of the first sign, including the original “tangerine” color of the neon, now matched by a crisp “citrus orange” color of the new LEDs. The new signage is also much more sustainable in its energy consumption.

“The modern product technology that we’re using is saving a tremendous amount of energy,” says Paul. “Today, it’s 1300 kilowatts per hour to operate the sign, versus 25,000 kilowatts per hour to operate the old neon. The difference is amazing!” 

And the response from the citizens of Baltimore?

99.9% positive according to Paul.

“Signs like this capture the minds and hearts of people who live in, work in, and visit the city. All of us at Gable are excited to play a role in the ‘remastering’ of this historic beacon for Baltimore,” says Paul. “Kudos, too, to our client for saving this classic piece of commercial architecture. They understand the importance of what this 70-year-old sign means to the city of Baltimore and the State of Maryland.”