It wasn’t always known as the “Old” Pimlico Clubhouse. The three-story layer cake of a Victorian mansion adjacent to Pimlico Race Course gained its aged modifier only after an observation tower for horse trainers and owners was added to what was known as “the little clubhouse” in 1920.
But the grand Old Clubhouse of Old Hilltop symbolized all that was stylish and classy about Maryland horse racing during the first half of the 20th century. On the wraparound front porch where so many fans watched thoroughbreds circle the track, gingerbread arches curved over carved balustrades. A bevy of second-story windows sported long shutters against pale yellow shingles. And a neat cupola, bearing Pimlico’s famous jockey weather vane, was the cherry that topped the snug third floor.
Built in 1870, most likely under architects John Niernsee and J. Crawford Neilson (the building has also been attributed, probably in error, to architect George A. Frederick, according to Baltimore Architecture Society board member James Wollon), the birth of the clubhouse coincided with the birth of Pimlico, both under the auspices of the Maryland Jockey Club. A Sun article reported that on Oct. 25 of that year, racing fans, some wearing black armbands in honor of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s recent death, paid 50 cents at the gate to watch the colt named Preakness win the first stakes race on the first day of racing at Pimlico.
From its early history onward, the clubhouse was the center of the social swirl. The Sun’s Society column routinely named those who attended parties there, and one article titled “Smartly Gowned Women Throng Pimlico Clubhouse” described each and every smart gown. When the Maryland Jockey Club sold the property in 1890 (and ceased to sponsor races at Pimlico between 1890 and 1904), the clubhouse became home to the Pimlico Driving Club, which celebrated its grand opening in 1891 with a meal of “salads, cold meat, salmon, crab, and other good things”— namely, copious amounts of champagne.
By 1899, the property had changed hands again and was known as the Country Club of Baltimore County at Pimlico, a social club that promised fine cuisine, a music hall, billiards and tenpin bowling alleys in the basement. During this time, one of the building’s many renovations resulted in $5,000 worth of improvements, including gilded interior columns, “exquisite electric lights” and extensive repainting of the interior rooms in tones of deep red, olive and yellow. “Never before since the clubhouse was built has it been so attractive,” gushed The Sun.
By 1904, the Maryland Jockey Club was back at Pimlico, and the clubhouse reverted to the social hub of the race course. Veteran newspaperman and racing reporter Joe Kelly remembers the building during its heyday in the 1940s, when a seat on the porch would cost $6. “Some people would only go to the Old Clubhouse for their racing,” says Kelly, adding that an afternoon at Pimlico was as much a social occasion as a sports occasion. “They never had to enforce a dress code there. Everybody dressed for the occasion in suits, hats, ties.”
Meals at the Old Clubhouse were legendary, often featuring traditional Maryland favorites like terrapin soup and the signature Preakness Salad, a variation of the Cobb with chicken, ham and bleu cheese tossed in among the greens and vegetables. Kelly recalls the glamorous dining rooms, where headwaiters wore tuxedos and white tablecloths graced each table.
“The food was excellent. They generally followed a custom of having certain dishes on the same day of the week. Saturday was Irish Lamb Stew. I do remember that. They did a first-class job,” says Kelly. “It epitomized stylish thoroughbred racing. It had atmosphere.”
Besides its dining rooms, the clubhouse also offered exquisite parlors where people could socialize between races and third-floor quarters for trainers to stay overnight (though the third floor later became home to the President’s Room, where the winning Preakness owner and his group would be feted after the race). The Maryland Jockey Club’s historic library was housed in the building and Eddie Arcaro’s silks from his 1948 Preakness win with Citation were part of the National Jockeys Hall of Fame, located on the second floor. Many of the stately rooms were hung with original paintings by Vaughn Flannery, who painted racing scenes of Pimlico, and portrait painter Henry Cooper.
All of this was lost when, on June 16, 1966, the Old Clubhouse burned to the ground in an eight-alarm blaze late in the evening. Joe Kelly recalls that his wife insisted they go and see the fire. “So I did go,” he says. “And I saw the most dramatic thing when the weather vane toppled down and fell to the ground.” The famous weather vane, still painted blue and white in honor of the recent 1966 Preakness winner Kauai King, was the only thing that survived the fire. It’s now in the museum on the race course grounds.