March 19, 2018
If you’ve ever seen an image of the skyline of Baltimore City, one thing that might have stuck with you is the massive, glowing Domino Sugars sign. Earlier this month we at PreserveCast got to visit the sugar refinery underneath that sign, which to this day processes some 7 million pounds of sugar a day. We also visited the offices of Triangle Sign and Service, the company that has maintained the sign since they first installed it in 1951. Join the conservation between Nick, and guests Peter O’Malley, Vice-President of Corporate Relations for American Sugar Refining — that’s the company that produces the Domino brand — and Joe Trabert and Dave Shapiro from Triangle Signs, about how and why this local icon has lasted so long, and what it takes to maintain it. Honestly, it was pretty sweet. This is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] If you’ve ever seen an image of the skyline of Baltimore City, one thing that might have struck you is the massive, glowing Domino Sugar sign. Earlier this month, we at PreserveCast got the opportunity to visit the sugar refinery underneath that sign, which to this day processes some 7 million pounds of sugar a day. We also visited the offices of Triangle Sign & Service, the company that has maintained the sign since they first installed it in 1951. There I spoke with Peter O’Malley, Vice President of Corporate Relations for ASR, the company that produces the Domino’s brand, as well Joe Trabert and Dave Shapiro from Triangle Signs about how and why this local icon has lasted so long as well as what it takes to maintain and preserve it. I’ll be honest. It was pretty sweet. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is Preserve Cast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. I’m here today with Peter O’Malley who is the Vice President of Corporate Relations at the ASR Group, which is the owner of Domino Sugar, as well as Joe Trabert and Dave Shapiro of Triangle Sign & Service. And we’re here in the home of Triangle Sign right here in Baltimore, Maryland, and we’re going to be talking today about one of the city’s most iconic signs, the Domino Sugar neon sign. And we’re so excited to be here to talk with true preservation artisans who have been caring for this sign since it’s original erection back in 1951 as well as the company that is charged with taking care of this in addition to being responsible for turning out a lot of sugar, and we’re going to hear all about that. But before we get started, we want to get some introductions to understand who we’re talking to and introduce these folks to the PreserveCast audience. So, Peter, if you don’t mind, maybe we’ll start with you. Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved with this sign and how you ended up with Domino Sugar.
[Peter O’Malley] Sure, Nick. I was introduced to Domino Sugar when I worked for a law firm downtown and Domino Sugar was one of our clients. And so I got to know the people who worked there, the company, and I really came to learn what a great, vibrant employment center it was, not only now for Baltimoreans but for generations. So after a couple years, I was lucky enough to get an offer to come and work at Domino Sugar and I’ve been there for the last four years.
[NR] And, Joe, you have been here at Triangle Sign for a while. What’s your connection to the Domino Sugar sign itself?
[Joe Trabert] I’ve worked for Triangle Sign for 39 years and I worked outside. I was an outside mechanic since 1979 spending about ten years running a service truck, and I was always fascinated with illumination and particularly neon. After working on a service truck doing repairs for the Domino Sugar sign, I finally got an opportunity to learn how to do neon. That’s how I got where I’m at.
[NR] And you’ve been up on this sign a few times?
[Dave Shapiro] Yes, I have. The Domino Sugar sign, after it was turned off with the energy crisis, when they all decided to re-light the sign, I was part of the crew who started out being up on the sign from the day one that they decided to start to light it to the day that we finished it and it was quite an achievement.
[NR] We’re going to get more about and hear more about what it’s like to climb up on this sign, which is iconic but is also extremely large when you get up in close with it. Dave, tell us a little bit about how you got into the sign industry and your connection to all of this.
[DS] Thank you, Nick. I got into the sign industry kind of through random luck. I actually took a job that was too far of a commute for me and I came in to start at Triangle as a filing tech and I helped out with filing for the first year. I was looking for another job at the time and ended up becoming project manager here and kind of worked my way up the ropes. Today I serve as our business development director and I get the job of putting together proposals and figuring out how to get the jobs done.
[NR] And why don’t you tell the people just a little bit about Triangle? Like what would you want them to know? What does Triangle do? I mean, obviously, today we’re talking about Domino Sugar, this iconic sign. But you do both historic and new. You were just telling us before, you’re fabricating. So how big is the shop? What kind of footprint do you have? Where are your signs around the country?
[DS] Triangle is one of the leading national retail sign companies. We’ve represented the GAP for over twenty years as well as many of the large retail names that you’ll hear throughout the mall. We do stadium signage; we’ve worked on Camden Yards. We do architectural signage throughout the country. We’ve been located in Baltimore since our inception [in] 1931. We were originally founded by three partners that included Milton Roseman and the Hecht brothers from Hecht’s Department store. The three of them formed the Triangle.
[NR] Ah, there we go.
[DS] Yeah. Fast forward, Milton’s grandson is now our company president. Steve [Bachler?], fabricated the Domino Sugar sign back in 1951. It is huge, like you said. It’s one of the larger neon displays. It’s 70 feet by 120 feet. And I read a news article recently that I think did it some justice. The entire square footage of the Camden Yards’ infield would fit comfortably inside the boarders of the Domino Dugar sign. It said four F-35s could park nose to tail, wingtip to wingtip inside that space. Or you could take a space shuttle orbiter and balance it on the frame, just a little bit hanging over the edges.
[NR] Yeah. So that gives listeners sort of a sense for – this thing is huge. And it’s funny, it’s so big you can see it from everywhere in the city, but you don’t really get a sense for that. Stephen, our producer, and I, and some folks from Domino Sugar were able to go up and take a look at it recently; and you really don’t get a sense for the scale of what you’re describing there until you really get right up on it. Peter, I’m curious, since you’re the representative of Domino here, any history you want to share on the sign itself? Is it one-of-a-kind for Domino? We heard that it was constructed back in the ’50s. Why has it lasted so long? Just kind of curious on the background and the history of this sign from the corporate side.
[PO] It’s interesting. The sign is not original to the refinery. The refinery was built in 1922. Construction started in 1920, it only took two years to build it. But the sign didn’t come along until about thirty years later. Now, prior to the sign being erected we had two smoke stacks at our powerhouse there. One said “Domino” and the other said “Sugar.” So the sign came around a little bit longer. Visitors always ask us, “Why’d you put that sign up there?” And we don’t know the particular reason, but it was of course for advertising. The sign faces the downtown business district. It sits on top of an eleven-story building so you can really see it from all over the downtown area. So it was for advertising. And at that time, let’s see, this refinery was actually one of the last refineries that the company built. And it was the tradition at the time to erect a big neon sign at our facilit. So refinery that we had in Boston had a large neon sign. Our facility down in New Orleans, in Chalmette, that had a large neon sign as well. So it’s kind of a tradition for our company to put up these large neon signs.
[NR] And we’re going to talk a little bit here in a second about how challenging neon can be to work with and how the sign requires a lot of constant upkeep. And Domino Sugar has been a really fantastic corporate steward of this, and they’ve cared for it, and obviously, put a lot of resources into keeping it looking the way it is which is fantastic. Have they ever considered, “Well, maybe it’s time to switch over. Neon’s sort of an old technology”? Or at least for the time being, is the plan to stick with neon?
[PO] Yeah. It’s not something that we have to think about right now. Luckily, we have this great company here who are Triangle Sign and Service who maintains our sign on a monthly basis. The weather lately, it’s been more like weekly… But no plans to change the sign. Baltimore loves this sign, and at this point, it belongs as much to Baltimore as it does to our company. So folks love the sign and we see no reason to change it.
[NR] Yeah. It’s funny how something that starts of as advertising, then all of a sudden becomes this beloved icon of the city almost. I mean, it’s almost has a separate identity even from the company that owns it. It’s interesting how that can happen. Well, why don’t we take a quick break here, and then when we come back let’s talk about the nitty-gritty details of how you care for this sign, what can go wrong with it, and talk to one of the individuals sitting on this table, Joe, who has actually climbed up on this thing and seen it up close and personal. And we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] There are any number of reasons you might name something after Domino’s. In the case of Domino brand sugar, the name evidently arose from a once popular style of sugar cube that resembled a domino piece. But did you know an entire town was once named because of Domino’s? It’s not called Dominoville or Dominoberg or anything like that, but the town of Titusville, Florida was named as a result of a round of the classic game between Henry T. Titus and Captain Clark Rice.
Located on the eastern coast of Florida, the area now known as Titusville was once inhabited by the native Ais tribe. But by around 1760, a combination of raids from the Spanish and neighboring tribes, as well as disease, left the land all but devoid of human life until settlers from the United States began to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century. By 1859, the settlers had a post office for a community with a nondescript name of Sand Point, a fine enough name for a town but not for Henry Titus.
Henry Theodore Titus was born in New Jersey but led a life that took him everywhere from Kansas to Nicaragua. After a chaotic turn as a quartermaster in the Confederate Army in the Civil War, during which he barely avoided imprisonment when his steamship was captured by a Union blockade, Titus ended up settling down in Florida with the intention of creating a town and making that town the county seat. His wife’s family owned land near Sand Point, thus making it the logical place for Titus to attempt to enact his dream. Bankrolling the construction of multiple roads and a hotel and donating land for four churches and a courthouse, it seemed as though Titus’ dream was within his grasp. Except that another prominent citizen, Captain Clark Rice, had similar plans. Rice challenged Titus to a match of dominos to determine who could name the new town. With the name Titusville, I think you can probably guess who won. Anyway, I should let you get back to PreserveCast. But first, here’s a word from Nick.
[Nick Redding] Howdy, podcast listeners. Whether this is your first episode or you’ve been listening since day one, I just wanted to say a quick thank you for listening. If you’re like us, you believe that in our rapidly-changing world history and preservation need to have a voice and seat at the table. That’s why we make this podcast where we talk about everything from augmented reality and self-driving cars to house museums to great historical landmarks like the Domino Sugar sign. We want the word preservation to reach as many ears as possible and you can help us do that!
We’ve got a new presence on Facebook and Twitter at PreserveCast, and a new website at PreserveCast.org where you can access all of our previous episodes as well as photo galleries and additional content. You can Like PreserveCast on Facebook and Twitter. Share it. Retweet it. Show that one friend who loves exploring old buildings the website next time you get lunch or that one friend who likes to keep up on new technology news. They might just be a preservationist, too. And together we can keep on preserving.
[NR] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today with Peter O’Malley, the Vice President of Corporate Relations of Domino Sugar, as well as Joe Trabert and Dave Shapiro, who both work with Triangle Sign & Service and we’re here in their offices in Baltimore, Maryland, talking about all things historic signs, and neon, and this really iconic piece of Baltimore history. And before we departed, we heard about how Domino has this real commitment to this icon of the city and all the good work that they’ve done to keep it in good repair. And we’ve been sort of beating around the talking about good repair, and I want to hear more about what that actually means. So, Joe, you’ve actually been up on this thing. Why don’t you tell people maybe something they’d be surprised about in terms of what kind of damage happens to a neon sign. I think a lot of people think, “Well, it’s glass. It goes up there and you just flip the switch and it’s lit up.” But things can go wrong, I guess, right?
[JT] Absolutely. When you’re talking about a sign as large as the Domino Sugar sign, there’s a multitude of things that can happen. Weather itself, just hail. You could have hail damage, which could definitely break the neon. Rain, if you have continuous days with rain and you have the voltage for the neon, could burn up some wires and stuff like that. So you always have little, minor repairs as far as wires or the housings that the neon tubes actually are put into. And you have your normal maintenance over the years, your transformers could go bad and you’d have to change a transformer or a burnt piece of wire. But a [sign] that [size], it’s usually a little something going on there.
[NR] So there’s always something going on. And in terms of neon, you hear more and more how this is – some people call it like a dying art. There’s just not a whole lot of it going on. Are you guys – I mean maybe this is a question for Dave. Is there a lot of new neon going up or is this… I mean what are you seeing?
[DS] Well, for a couple years there we did see a little bit of downtrend in neon. But I’d say this past year it’s really starting to pick back up as a nostalgia thing. Where there are a lot of historic, little marketplaces opening up around the country and they want that look, that industrial look of neon back and so it’s making a comeback.
[NR] Right. Because for some time, people were kind of switching over to LEDs and you can kind of get that neon look with LEDs. But are you doing a lot of pure, new neon?
[DS] It varies by application. There is, certainly, quite a bit of new neon comparatively this year versus the last six or seven, but the LED “faux- neon” as we will call it has certainly become very popular as well, and specifically in the national retail marketplace. We put a lot of that out into the marketplace.
[NR] So, Joe, I mean in terms of the actual work that goes into doing this, how many people on staff do you have that are really skilled at doing neon work? Is it harder and harder to find those folks or… ?
[JT] Well, due to the fact that they art did kind of slip away a little bit there, we have three neon benders on premises. And like you said, at one point in time, we had three shifts of neon vendors. There was a lot of neon vendors that worked at Triangle Sign. Just more of the call for it now. It’s not quite what it was.
[NR] The sign itself is – and we’ve said, is really a local landmark. Joe, do you have a love neon? Is that what got you into this? I mean, tell us a little bit about your background with neon itself.
[JT] Well, me working with Triangle Sign and getting to learn how to do neon and being up on that sign is just – the Domino Sugar sign is the iconic neon sign that I’ve ever seen or had a part of. Like I said, by water, by land, anywhere at all in Baltimore City that sign is visible. I don’t think there’s a day I’ve ever gone past it where I haven’t pointed it out to somebody and, “Hey, I’ve been up on that sign and worked on it.”
[NR] And you were telling us before we started the recording here that you actually went to Las Vegas just to see neon. Is that true?
[JT] I did. I mean, it started here at Domino and it ended up my very first trip to Las Vegas was not to gamble, wasn’t to see the casinos. It was to see the actual neon and all the flashing, chasers, and all that kind of stuff with the neon sign itself. It was just love of the neon itself.
[NR] Yeah, I think that proves that you love neon to go to Vegas just to look at it.
[JT] True, I did. I sure did.
[DS] And, Joe, the people that work on neon are called neon benders?
[JT] Neon bender. Yes, sir.
[NR] Peter, I’m curious. Any bizarre requests? Anything unusual that we should know about the sign? Any funny anecdotes from the people who are charged with maintaining and stewarding it?
[PO] Not so much from the staff. We did a get a request. Actually, we got a message on our Facebook page, Domino Sugar Baltimore, from a guy who was very happy to share his idea with us about the sign. And he wrote and said, “I’ve had this great idea that I wanted to share with you guys. And I think you should put a nightclub on the roof of the refinery right under the sign and call it the Sugar Shack.” He’d go and he’s sure that others would, too. But that’s not something we could do due to our –
[NR] Not a lot of consideration to that concept?
[PO] Due to our zoning. It’d be hard to get a use and occupancy permit for that.
[NR] I think that could be challenging. Well, it’s certainly something to think of if sugar ever takes a downturn, I guess.
[PO] We’re not going anywhere.
[NR] No, I don’t think so. And maybe to that point, truly, not only do you have this iconic sign but the industry itself is a major part of Baltimore and I think a lot of people – we have a lot of listeners around the country who may not be familiar with just how large the Port of Baltimore is. The economic impact of the port – you have nearly 500 employees on site doing work there. But do you want to give people a sense for what actually happens in terms of the sugar refining in Baltimore and the scale of it?
[PO] Yeah, as you mentioned, we have almost 500 employees. We operate on three shifts a day. The busy time for us is between September and January, that’s the baking season. We bring in raw sugar to the plant through the great Port of Baltimore. And it’s great to have that deep water access there. So the raw ships will bring in the raw sugar. We have two gantry cranes that will then unload the raw sugar, put it on a conveyor belt. It gets weighed, brought to our raw sugar shed where it’s stored for only a brief period of time before it’s then taken into the refinery. It goes through various filtration processes where we take out impurities. And when we get the raw sugar it’s about 97 percent pure from the mills and we take it that extra 3 percent to make sure it’s 100 percent pure. So once we take out the impurities, the sugar is then dried and stored in the raw sugar bin, which is that blue and white building that you can see next to the sign. It’s stored there until packaging is ready to package the sugar. And we have 23 different packaging lines, over 40 different products. Everything from the small sugar packets to a 2,000-pound bag of sugar, which is used by industrial foodmakers. Light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar…
[NR] If it’s sweet, you’ve got it.
[PO] We do. And so then it goes to the warehouse. The warehouse will empty out about every two or three days as well. So it’s constant motion from getting the raw sugar off the ship until we send it out the front door, either on a train or on a truck.
[NR] Yeah. It’s fascinating. And I asked the question because I think a lot of times we see these iconic signs or these factories and we don’t realize that in many cases, there’s still a tremendous economic output coming out underneath of that sign. There’s a whole lot of activity. So it’s easy to look across the Harbor and see that-
[PO] Absolutely. We provide those 500 jobs but there’s another 120 jobs that wouldn’t exist but for our presence. And manufacturing is really great for creating jobs. For every one manufacturing job, there’s 2.5 jobs that are created. So we have a lot of contractors coming into the facility every day. We have a whole parking lot that’s dedicated to contractors. So, no, it’s a very busy place.
[NR] Yeah. If people want to learn more about Triangle Sign and get to learn more about the work that you do, Dave, where would you send them to?
[DS] I think a wonderful place is obviously our website. It’s a great first place. We’ve got a LinkedIn page, keep it updated with a blog on the work that we’re doing here. The Maryland Historical Society is great for both information on Triangle Sign and Domino. We’ve been in Baltimore for so long that they keep a lot of great records over there.
[NR] Yeah, you’re historic yourself. And, Peter, if they want to find out more information about Domino Sugar, the work that you do, the history of the company, all that good stuff, where are the best places to find you guys?
[PO] We have a Vimeo page. We also have a Facebook page, and it’s Domino Sugar Baltimore. So we’ll post old pictures of the refinery from time to time. And we have a lot of videos posted that will show just how the refinery works, how we refine the sugar and package it.
[NR] And the question that we have that’s generally pretty difficult for people who love historic places and history that we always wrap up with on PreserveCast is your favorite historic building or place. So why don’t we go around the room and try and do that? Dave, do you want to take a stab at that?
[DS] Yeah, I’m going to say Baltimore’s entire Inner Harbor is my favorite historic place, and obviously, Domino being the defining landmark. It gives Baltimore that industrial feel that the local cities, D.C. or New York, just don’t have. And I love when you go by, there’s the local artist, Robert McClintock studio in Fells Point and you see the drawings of the Harbor and the Domino Sugar sign. Or you’re watching Tin Man or Diner or Homicide or The Wire, and you get the glimpses of the Harbor and the Domino Sugar sign in the background. It just means a lot to me, I think, growing up in Baltimore.
[NR] That’s a good one. Peter?
[PO] My favorite historic place just happens to be down the road from Domino Sugar, and that’s Fort McHenry. I went there as a boy when I was seven or eight and I’ve been going back ever since. And now I serve as the chair of the Friends of Fort McHenry organization that helps support educational programming at the Fort and helps transport schoolchildren to visit.
[NR] And, Joe, how about yourself?
[JT] I would say also the Inner Harbor because I did a lot of work with Triangle in Inner Harbor when it opened up, both on Light Street and Pratt Street. And definitely, without a doubt, Domino Sugar because I was there and over every inch of the sign. Upside down and worked on the neon tubes and everything. And even while taking cruises on my boat, I would cruise up to the Inner Harbor and we would dock up to the Inner Harbor there. And I would point up and show everybody that was on my boat, “Hey, I was on that sign up there. I worked on that sign. We fixed that.” And they’re like, “Wow.” It’s breathtaking, even from the water, as far away as it is from the actual sign itself. It’s amazing. It’s a monster, really is.
[NR] I guess it’s a good sign, and a good place to end, to know that someone who’s been over every inch of it still loves it so there’s something alluring about this sign. And we appreciate the opportunity to sit down with everyone. And, also, I think our hat’s off to Domino Sugar and Peter’s whole team for their commitment to keeping this sign in good repair. So thanks, everyone for joining us and for being with us today here on PreserveCast.
[PO] Thank you.
[DS] Thank you.
[JT] Thank you.
You don’t need to open a history book to find us. PreserveCast is available online from iTunes, the Google Play Store, and wherever else you download your podcasts, as well as on our website PreserveCast.org, where you can find a complete archive of all our previous episodes plus photo galleries and additional content. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at PreserveCast.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service, and in partnership with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!