Mount Washington's 45-year-old swim club still packs them in

Baltimore Messenger
The Mount Washington Swimming Club is owned by its 350 members.

Amy Noji, 58, and Abraham Caplan, 11, are both becoming lifers at the Mount Washington Swimming Club.

Noji, a civil engineer, swims 36 laps, a mile's worth, every day, rain or shine. She's been coming to the private club of 350 member households for the past 30 years, except if there's thunder or lightning.

"They don't let me in the pool."

While Noji swam laps June 17, Abe was playing Sharks and Minnows, a tag game, with his friends. He first made a splash on the cover of the Baltimore Messenger as a 1-year-old playing in the wading pool in 2005. Ten years later, he hasn't lost his passion for the pool

"I just do a lot of things here," he said.

These are busy days for the wooded neighborhood pool, a fixture at 2300 Enslow Road since the club opened in 1970. As the school year wound down and summer camps ramped up last week, families, most residing in Mount Washington, were showing up at the pool in healthy numbers — even as a short-lived rain fell lightly.

Real estate developer Charlie Nass relaxed in a chaise lounge near poolside, reading a New Yorker magazine piece about famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. Nass said he likes to jump in the pool and cool off at the end of the work day, "even if no one comes with me."

At a nearby picnic table sat his daughter, Stella, 14, just graduated from eighth grade at the Mount Washington School, drawing in a book with a box of pizza beside her while she waited for friends to arrive.

"All my friends are here, so we come here to hang out," she said. "After school, after camp, everybody ends up here."

Abe's parents, Rachel and Stuart Caplan, sat on a hillside overlooking the pool, watching Abe and their other children, Ben, 9, and Caroline, 7, as well as another family's daughter, Orla Shiller-Starger, 6, who was draped in a flag-themed towel.

"Orla's hanging out with us for the afternoon," Rachel Caplan said.

The Caplans no longer have to hang out by the wading pool below to watch their children, now that they're older.

"We graduated to the hill," she said.

"People are comfortable" at the pool, said Karen Brown, who has been swimming laps there for 26 years. "They look out for each other."

It's a plain pool compared with the Mount Washington Aquatic Center, where Olympian Michael Phelps trains. But Rachel Caplan said they can see Phelps at a nearby Starbucks several times a week.

Brown prefers the smaller pool.

"It's unpretentious," she said.

For Jill Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital and secretary to the pool's board of directors, the pool is about more than having fun. It's a symbol of community spirit.

"It's all about the community," she said, as she prepared to go swimming with her daughters, Rebecca Fishkin, a rising fourth-grader at the Mount Washington School, and Stephanie Fishkin, a rising seventh-grader in the Ingenuity program at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.

"This is like a little mini-vacation for people every afternoon," said Brad Gartrell, 35, of Parkville, a music teacher in the Baltimore City school system, who is starting his fourth summer as the pool's head manager. "It's such a cool pool, nice and quiet."

Member-owned

The Mount Washington Swimming Club is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Memberships are $475 a year for households and $265 for individuals. The club's bylaws cap membership at 350 households, and a waiting list is common.

"You need people to resign and move away. That's how you get in," Feinberg said.

The club features a main pool with lap lanes, a diving board and its own Sharks and Minnows bump-out play area; a separate, fenced-in children's pool known as the baby pool; a clubhouse with a concession area that sells ice cream and sodas; picnic tables and a ping-pong table on a hillside overlooking the pool; a net for playing volleyball and badminton; and numerous chaise lounges with umbrellas. People can even have dinner and birthday parties there, and the staff can give them balloons, Gartrell said.

Hanging in the clubhouse doorway is an old bicycle horn — a gift from Sherber's predecessor as club president, Mac Nachlas. When patrons order pizza, the delivery men know to honk the horn to announce that the food has arrived, "and the people come down to get their food," Gartrell said.

The club is owned by its members.

"If something were to happen and we were to close the pool and sell off the property, all of the members would get an equal share of the proceeds," said Aaron Sherber, president of the board and a touring orchestra conductor for the Martha Graham Dance Company.

The club's annual budget is about $160,000. That pays mostly for maintenance, property and other taxes, and the salaries of Gartrell, three assistants and about 15 lifeguards.

"We do anything," said lifeguard and concessionaire Jenna Janes, of Mount Washington, who just graduated from Roland Park Country school and is bound for the University of Vermont in the fall to major in Early Childhood Education.

But when the club needed money for a new pool and other major upgrades in 2005, it took out a loan for $300,000 and charged members special assessments.

"We're still paying that off," Sherber said. He also said fees have increased gradually over the years, partly so that the club has more of a budget surplus on hand to keep up with any mandatory minimum wage increases for employees and for future projects, such as $10,000 needed to replace a pool cover that is starting to tear.

The club also needs to do repairs inside the pool, which will mean draining and replacing the pool's 178,000 gallons of water, Sherber said.

The founders of the pool "weren't thinking so much about the future," but financial planning is much more important now, Sherber said.

"We're trying to have a much more careful eye on the future."

Well-hidden

Nestled in the woods off West Rogers Avenue near Northern Parkway, the club can be hard to find, and that's the way members like it.

"One of the things we particularly like about the pool is that it's very well-hidden," Sherber said.

"It's a beautiful location, right in the middle of the neighborhood, but secluded," said Feinberg, the club secretary.

Though private and off the beaten path, the pool is nonetheless a community resource. It is open for free to nonmembers on Tuesdays and Thursdays with proof of Mount Washington residency, and on July 4 after the annual Spirit of Mount Washington Independence Day Parade.

It is also open to the seniors and staff at the adjacent Springwell Senior Living retirement community.

'We have a good relationship with Springwell," Sherber said. He said the club is bound by covenants regulating hours, noise and other details, that were first negotiated with Springwell's predecessor, the former Wesley nursing home.

And there is actually a beaten path that runs between West Rogers Avenue and the club's back entrance, including past Springwell and the backyard of 19-year Mount Washington resident and attorney Marc Atas. The club inked a similar continuing covenant with the former owners of Atas' house.

Atas admits that he's not much of a pool person, but said he has had no problems with the club and actually enjoys the sounds of the pool in the distance. He also noted that a Boy Scout a few years back beautified the path as a project to help him attain the rank of Eagle Scout.

Atas said the path could use sprucing up again, but, "Unfortunately, the club doesn't have another Eagle Scout."

Springwell's covenant with the club allows for the use of the footpath and allows its residents to take advantage of the pool.

"Some of them just hang out in the shade and some are in the pool swimming," said Phil Golden, Springwell's director and co-owner.

The retirement community was also a lifesaver one year, when the club lost power.

"So they used our freezer and saved some Popsicles and ice cream cones," Golden said

He personally enjoys having the club as a neighbor.

"I hear the excited shouts and screams from the pool as I'm getting ready to leave work," he said.

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