From the Vault: 50 years ago, Pimlico Clubhouse burned to the ground

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There’s a distinct smell that a Baltimore house makes when it’s burning, says Sun reporter Jacques Kelly.

That smell was in the air the night of June 17, 1966, as Kelly rode with his father in a car from their Charles Village home to the Pimlico race course. The oldest clubhouse in American racing was burning, and his father wanted the family to be there to see it happen.

After all, it was history.

They arrived to a horrifying scene: the building was ablaze, illuminated by spotlights of the fire department as they tried to stop the flames. But watching it, Kelly knew that there would be no saving the old Pimlico clubhouse. By the next day there was little left but a chimney and weather vane.

Since 1870, racing fans and socialites had made the annual trek out to Pimlico, also known as “Old Hilltop,” for Preakness. It was the sports event in Baltimore, and news of it filled the society pages and the sports pages. And the hottest ticket was the clubhouse.

And Jacques Kelly was in.

Kelly had been coming to Pimlico club house as a youngster, since his father covered racing professionally — first for The Sun, and later for The Washington Evening Star.

Though his parents adored Pimlico, Kelly recalled he was skeptical that it could really be that special – or at least special enough to warrant the inconvenience of putting on a coat and tie, as children were required to at the time. But he soon became a believer. “But when you finally experienced it you saw they weren’t exaggerating, it was actually better than they said.”

A main attraction was the food, catered by Harry M. Stephens of New York. “They brought down their best waiters… beautiful tablecloths napkins and exquisite serving pieces,” Kelly said. Chicken salad came with mayonnaise served in a silver gravy boat, capers in its own container, what seemed then the height of elegance.

The clothes were astonishing, too. “The women were turned out in clothes that just made my eyes go around,” Kelly said, while men wore English-tailored racing coats in tweed. But all the decorum was leveled by a sense of relaxation – Preakness at Pimlico Club House was formal, but with perhaps the top button undone.

As for the old clubhouse itself, Kelly remembers, “It was really a curious, whimsical building.” Resembling a Victorian hotel, its decorative woodwork harkened back to another era. “It sort of cried out for women in white dresses and men in straw hats.”

Though it was built just after the Civil War, the building was well-kept and frequently repainted. “It was never allowed to deteriorate because it was held in such high respect,” Kelly says. “Racing people are very sentimental.”

But it was all gone in an evening. The night of the fire, June 17, 1966, Kelly, then 16, drove with his family to go watch a Baltimore landmark burn down.

“We’re coming in Park Heights Avenue you can see, first of all you can smell it, because the wood – there is a very distinctive smell when a Baltimore building burns and it’s an old building, and it’s wood,” Kelly says. It’s not an altogether unpleasant smell – yet with the unmistakable sense of something bad is happening.

Once they arrived, he said, the building had been enveloped in a massive bonfire. Though the fire department made a valiant effort, “Nothing could have stopped it, let’s put it that way.” The family returned the following day. “The next day all I remembered was just the ruins and the chimneys – the brick chimneys.”

Lost with the building were the Maryland Jockey Club’s records, in addition to rooms full of racing memorabilia and expensive paintings, including portraits of horses by prominent artist Vaughn Flannery. Kelly says his father, a racing historian, was particularly upset by the loss of the artwork.

“Marylanders, Baltimoreans were very sentimental about the building,” Kelly says. “It was considered one of the grand Baltimore landmarks,” like City Hall or the Basilica. It was certainly the end of a racing era. “Racing had a pretty good comeback in the 70s as a sport, but I don’t think Pimlico as a track ever quite recovered after that.”

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