Race day outpost

Once one of many, house near Pimlico stands alone, except during Preakness

May 17, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Most days, the little white house is quiet. Robins bob through buttercups on the front lawn, then dart off into the fields surrounding the house. The horse on the mailbox is frozen in a silent gallop.

But today will bring a very different scene. Hundreds of cars will crowd around the little house, and the fields will be full of people chatting about track conditions, black-eyed Susans and horses with grand names like Big Brown or Giant Moon.

Once the white brick house stood among many others in a quiet neighborhood flanking the Pimlico racetrack. But several years ago, in accordance with a 2004 agreement with the city to create a buffer zone around the track, the Maryland Jockey Club began buying and demolishing houses to make way for an overflow parking lot. Some of the home owners refused to sell, but one by one, they caved in.

All of them, that is, except for Jewel Grunitzky.

"I just decided I didn't want to sell," said Grunitzky, 53, a nurse at nearby Sinai Hospital.

Despite offers from numerous real estate agents and private buyers, Grunitzky has held on to the house. Although she has never lived there - she has rented it in the 15 or so years since she bought it - she returns on Preakness Day to sell grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and parking spots on her lawn.

"Some people come back every year," she said. "They say they know where they are when they see the white house."

For the rest of the year, the house is surrounded by a sweeping expanse of lawn, more befitting a Green Spring Valley mansion than a two-story Cape Cod with whitewashed brick walls.

In 2003, about 20 other houses stood in the area bounded by Northern Parkway, the racetrack and Winner and Stuart avenues. After the 2004 agreement, track officials bought the houses at a substantial markup and demolished them.

The homes around the track had been getting "more and more run-down" in the years before they were demolished, said Mac Nachlas, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association, which includes the neighborhoods that abut the track. The fields isolate neighbors from the track's hubbub during the regular racing season, but they cannot contain the mayhem that occurs there once a year, he said.

"The streets adjacent to Pimlico suffer pretty dramatically during Preakness," he said.

The fields remain empty most of the year, but they are used for parking on Preakness Day and the day before, said Pimlico spokesman Mike Gathagan.

Grunitzky bought the house about 15 years ago with the hope of starting a school for young children there. Her sister owned the house next door, and they planned to pool their properties and run the school together. However, when they went to the city for permits, they learned of the track's plans for the land and decided against starting a school there. Today the two run Willow Park Academy on Rolling Road in Windsor Mill.

Although her sister sold her place to the Maryland Jockey Club, Grunitzky could never be persuaded to sell.

"It really wasn't about the money," she said. "I'd like to be able to pass it on to my children."

Tenants have always been eager to rent the house, she said. They enjoy the almost bucolic setting throughout the year and manage to deal with the mayhem of the Preakness. Some have set up lawn chairs in the yard to watch the crowds; others have traveled out of town; and some, adopting an if-you-can't-beat-'em approach, have attended the race.

The current tenants of the house declined to be interviewed for this article, but the contents of their backyard - a trampoline, swing set and basketball hoop - give the impression that children are growing up in what amounts to a park near the race course.

Concrete jersey walls separate the yard from the fields around it. Several tall trees and electric poles, with wires that do not lead anywhere, rise from the fields. Many of the trees grow in straight lines, delineating yards around homes that no longer exist.

On a recent morning, crews from Pimlico buzzed around the fields on riding mowers. As helicopter seeds whirled down from a maple tree in front of the little white house, Grunitzky pointed out where she planned to park cars on her property today. She estimates that at least 45 vehicles will squeeze into the yard throughout the day.

Asked whether she would consider selling in the future, Grunitzky shrugged her shoulders: "I just don't know."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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