By T. D. Thornton
A six-alarm fire destroyed the press box and announcer's booth atop the historic grandstand at Suffolk Downs in East Boston Monday night. The former Massachusetts track was vacant at the time except for security personnel, and no one was injured in the blaze.
As firefighters monitored hot spots and tried to determine a cause Tuesday morning, there was a sense of “it could have been worse” among neighbors and onlookers at the scene.
Although the roof of the building sustained fire and water damage, the hulking steel-and-concrete structure built in 1935 still stands, with the southern clubhouse portion appearing undamaged.
Suffolk Downs last hosted Thoroughbred racing on June 30, 2019.
The fire broke out exactly five years to the date that HYM Investment Group, LLC, acquired the 161-acre property with the intention of redeveloping the site for a mixed-use project involving biotechnology labs and 4,200 housing units.
The massive project is considered extremely lucrative because the parcel represents one of the largest, un-subdivided pieces of land in greater Boston.
The Suffolk Downs stable area had been razed several years ago, and that section of the property–technically in the neighboring city of Revere and hundreds of yards away from the grandstand–has been in the process of being redeveloped first. Just six days prior to the May 30 fire, HYM had held a ground-breaking ceremony to commemorate the start of that work.
Under a lease arrangement, the previous owners, Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, LLC, have been permitted to keep conducting simulcasting in the clubhouse while the anticipated years-long construction takes place, and the public has been allowed to use the mile-long former racecourse as a park for exercise and dog-walking. No timetable has been publicly disclosed for the demolition or repurposing of the combined grandstand and clubhouse.
The building had been open for simulcasting until about 6:15 p.m. on Memorial Day. The fire was first reported around 9:40 p.m. after an alarm went off.
The fire appears to have begun in the north section of the press box where the TV control room for simulcasting was located.
Regulars who frequented the press box when the track was still operational for live racing recall that cramped area as a nest of both old and patchworked electrical wiring snaking among wood-paneled walls.
According to Twitter postings from the official Boston Fire Department (BFD) account, the blaze rapidly grew in intensity, leading Boston Fire Commissioner John Dempsey to take command as departments from neighboring municipalities rushed to help.
Photos of the in-progress fire posted by BFD showed flames wiping out the announcer's booth directly above the TV control room. The satellite dishes used to receive simulcast signals were also located on that section of the roof.
Access to hydrants was cited as a problem, and firefighters had to relay together thousands of feet of hosing after knocking down fences that separated the track property from an adjacent neighborhood of triple-deckers to get to hydrants.
“We had a very difficult time with water. It's very limited here,” said Dempsey.
Dempsey ordered firefighters off the structure around midnight, shortly before flames burned through the roof. A drone with thermal imaging capabilities was deployed to assess hot spots from above, and crews used multiple tower ladders to combat the blaze.
Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer for Sterling Suffolk, told the Boston Globe Tuesday that plans are underway to acquire new simulcasting technology and relocate it to the clubhouse.
“The equipment that we need in order to show the races from tracks around the country, that area has been destroyed,” Tuttle said. “So there will be some interruption in our on-site simulcasting for at least a week, perhaps longer than that.”
At the time of its construction 87 years ago, Suffolk Downs was considered an architectural marvel. Amid the rush to take advantage of newly legalized pari-mutuel wagering in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the track was constructed in just 62 days on a former landfill atop coastal salt marshes.
Prior to opening day on July 10, 1935, the Boston Globe wrote that, “There is no doubt that Suffolk Downs is the last word in racing plants. From every spot in the spacious grandstand one can secure a glimpse of the entire track. The clubhouse is the ultimate in all respects. Everything is mahogany and modern… The press box at Suffolk Downs is on top of the grandstand. It is 100 feet long, one of the largest racetrack press boxes in the country.”
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