The Horse You Came In On helped make Fells Point. Today, it will be sold. It's time to saddle up

November 09, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

If anyone was paying attention, which they probably weren't after a few sips, all they needed to know about the Horse You Came In On revealed itself in the saloon's first hour of business.

That's when a silver-haired dude in a black hat rode a horse through the front door and up to the bar. And nobody minded.

It was Aug. 7, 1972, the waterfront streets of Fells Point weren't yet synonymous with bar-hopping, and Ken Piaskowski, a friend of the new saloon's owner, was happy to help.

"We got a little crazy," Piaskowski says, still proud of how he paid $20 to borrow the pony. "It was a different era."

It's an era that ends officially today when the Fells Point watering hole is auctioned off.

Though they might not realize it, buyers will be bidding on a little piece of lager-steeped history, a saloon named for the back half of a crude rebuke that helped Fells Point evolve from a sleepy neighborhood into a Baltimore destination.

"The Horse," Piaskowski says, "helped make Fells Point."

Thirty-five years ago, Howard Gerber, long-haired and in his 20s, began scouting sites for his dream bar. He fell for Thames Street on a warm, foggy night, smitten by the clapboard, cobblestone and salty air.

Gerber chose a sturdy dormer-roofed building that had been a tavern most of its 200 years. When he came along, it was Al's and Ann's, a neighborhood joint that, as Gerber puts it, made more money selling cigarettes than drinks.

But with the right location, Gerber needed the right name.

"We wanted something so unique that people walking by would say, `We have to go in there,' " he says.

The idea of playing off of a saucy curse caught Gerber's fancy, and a little equine karma clinched it. When he got lucky enough at Pimlico to afford his down payment, he figured that was all the sign he needed. The Horse You Came In On it was.

Besides sparking countless conversations over the nicked wooden bar, the pub's name inspired best-selling mystery writer Martha Grimes, who used it as the title of her 12th Richard Jury detective caper.

When the author visited the saloon 13 years ago, she told Gerber, "The only reason part of this book is set in Baltimore is that I saw this pub sign.

"So we were walking down [Thames Street] and I saw the sign and I said, `My God! The name of this place!' ... I knew I would have to figure out some way to get Jury and Melrose to come over, purely on the basis of the name of this pub."

When Gerber first transformed the space from Al's and Ann's to the Horse, his goal was to replace the white-tiled aesthetic with the vibe of an old English dive.

If he tried hard, his success is because it looked as if he didn't.

In 1976, a Sun columnist described the scene as warm, laid-back and refreshingly undone: "All of which is in keeping with the nature of the patrons, who are stylish but not slick, educated but not intellectual, and hip but not trend-setting."

The Horse's ambience these days is no different. As Gerber leafs through reams of photos he has snapped though the years, aside from the hair-dos and outfits, it's all the same - from the unpolished plank floors to the brass Pullman car lamps.

With peanut shells, ashes and the residue of many a long evening collecting in the corners and floor cracks, the dim lighting is for the best. Patrons might be surprised to learn that the pressed tin ceiling, a lovely shade of amber, was once white - somewhere beneath the shellac of a million exhaled cigarettes.

"The one word everyone uses is comfortable," Gerber says. "The kind of place you didn't worry about throwing your cigarette butts on the floor."

In 18 years at the Horse, Ann Zizzi, has worked her way up from bartender to manager. Like other longtime staffers, she believes Edgar Allan Poe not only drank there in his day, but that his ghost haunts the place. "Edgar" is blamed for everything from creaking floors to glasses that slip from bartenders' hands.

Ghosts, grime and all, Zizzi says the customers wouldn't have it any other way.

"One thing in Fells Point that's never changed is the feel of the Horse," Zizzi says. "Anybody could go there and feel at home. Old. Young. Good-looking or not. It's a very accepting place."

"It's nonthreatening in here," adds Gerber. "It's not a meat market. OK. Maybe it is."

The many couples whose eyes first met across the Horse's bar aren't complaining - like Deborah Finkelsen of Sykesville, who 23 years ago found her future husband, Kent, working the door.

"We make a point every year of going back for the anniversary," she says.

The Horse has always been primarily a beer place. These days the black-shirted staff pour plenty of Red Bull-this and Cosmopolitan-that, but cold American drafts are, and have always been, the Horse's beverage.

When it opened in 1972, the Horse became one of a fledgling handful of Fells Point pubs, rough-hewn but with more ambition than neighborhood bars, which together made the neighborhood a drinking destination, to the delight of some and the dismay of others.

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