Looking out at the Baltimore skyline from behind the Domino Sugars sign (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)

As much of Baltimore finishes its work day, the Domino sign is just warming up.


Each evening, it takes 15 minutes from the moment the timer clicks on for the noble gases to be ready to paint the town red. Showtime zips through hundreds of miles of wire and 230 transformers until it makes a grand entrance in 650 elongated glass tubes bent into the shapes that spell out America's No. 1 brand of sugar.

The result is picture perfect. Countless people have made the sign the backdrop for snapshots. People have called the refinery or arrived unannounced at the front gate, begging to have the sign illuminated just for them.

"You're suddenly talking to someone who's having a birthday or bar mitzvah and they want you to turn the sign on," says Mickey Seither, who was in charge of the Domino sign for a decade and is now a senior vice president. "And I'm like, 'Well, I can. But it's noon. You won't see it.'"

Few people, other than maintenance crews, get to see the sign at rooftop-level.

Up close, close enough to touch, the sign looks every minute of its 62 years. Baltimore may be in a temperate zone, but the elements can be quite intemperate. Rain and wind, cold and heat have scoured the metal surfaces, front and back, and the latticework of girders, cables and turnbuckles that keep the sign whole.

But when nature's light fades to black, the wrinkles and kinks disappear in a blaze of crimson.

In a world that craves cutting edge, the Domino Sugars sign is decidedly not.

Its very lifeblood, neon, is being replaced around the world by LED lights that are more efficient and easier to change. That's not likely to happen in Baltimore anytime soon, company officials say.

A battery-powered timer similar to ones found in homes serves as the gatekeeper.

Reaching the sign is strictly old fashioned, too. A freight elevator ride up nine stories leads to a series of massive steel doors and then 26 steps to the roof. A ladder and then a smaller ladder take you to the sign's base. An even tinier ladder threads its way skyward, over the logo's frame, to the left of the "a" and between the "i" and the "n."

Open your eyes and admire the view.

The cityscape arcs through working waterfront to tightly packed row homes to upscale marinas and condos to the downtown. Sailboats tack and duel in fierce contests while party boats and the water taxi churn on their way. Urban sounds are devoured by the industrial bump and grind of a factory making sugar.

The faint scent of caramel perfumes the air and surfaces are sticky to the touch.

It's not yet sundown, so you can see people at a nearby BP station pumping gas, grabbing coffee. Below, tractor trailers come and go, loading up on sugar.

If you are one of those directionally challenged people flummoxed by the nooks and crannies of the Inner Harbor, the platform of the Domino sign will help you sort it out.

Puny neon signs around town do their best to call attention to themselves, but they can't hold a candle to the 12 letters within a frame of 120 feet by 70 feet.

The Domino sign has been compared in size to a basketball court. That's a complete injustice. Try this: the entire square footage of the Camden Yards infield would fit comfortably within its border; four F-35 fighter jets could park nose to tail, wingtip to wingtip inside; a space shuttle orbiter would balance on the frame with just a wee bit hanging over the edges.

It's that big.