My Alibi? They Wouldn't Answer Answer Man

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By John Kelly
Sunday, May 10, 2009

I was wondering if you have any information on the building at 1806 I St. NW. It is obviously a pre-Civil War building and the only remaining such structure on the block. It has a small plaque on the front that says "Alibi Club." It has (old) curtains in the windows, and I have never seen anyone entering or leaving. It is just a very strange anomaly in an area of new office buildings and obviously taxes continue to be paid on it and, I assume, a minimum amount of maintenance. Any ideas?

-- Mike Duffy, Rockville

Answer Man paid a visit to the Alibi Club on Friday. He walked up the metal steps and, finding the outer door open, ascended to a small vestibule and confronted a locked green door. What, he wondered, was behind the green door?

Answer Man buzzed the intercom, introduced himself and said: "I wondered if I could talk to someone about the Alibi Club."

"Sorry, no," came the answer.

If Answer Man was any kind of investigator he would have disguised himself as a deliveryman or a meter reader and bluffed his way inside. Alas, he is bound by the ethical code of the reporter, and so he made more legal enquiries. That meant talking to the neighbors and reading through the clips.

"If you wait outside you can see people you've seen on TV," said George Ramakis, proprietor of City Watchmaker next door.

George has seen them entering the Alibi Club: congressmen, senators, Secret Service agents, too, accompanying the occasional presidential visitor. A pretty high-powered crowd for what looks like a flophouse.

What is the Alibi Club, anyway? Well, it's a club. Whether it is a gentlemen-only club Answer Man cannot say. It certainly was founded as such, in 1884, by seven disaffected members of the Metropolitan Club.

The building has always looked shabby from the outside. In 1896, The Post reported that members preferred it that way: "There is enough to interest one inside."

Before discussing what is inside, Answer Man will discuss who is inside. The Alibi Club has the reputation of being one of the most secretive clubs in town (although Answer Man thinks a truly secretive club would be one no one had ever heard of). Membership is apparently limited to exactly 50, a new member being admitted upon the death of an old one.

These deaths occasion a rare mention of the Alibi Club in the newspaper. Obituaries note membership. These obituaries tend not to be of deliverymen or meter readers, but of law firm partners, ambassadors, heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Federal Reserve Board chairmen, that sort of thing.

George H.W. Bush is reportedly a member, as was his father. CIA directors Allen W. Dulles and Richard Helms were members, as was Smithsonian secretary S. Dillon Ripley. Alan Greenspan had lunch there on his 75th birthday.

"The only qualification for membership is that a man be well known to all of the members," Adm. Jerauld Wright told a Post reporter in 1975. "A new member must be approved by all of the existing members."

Wright -- former commander of the Atlantic fleet, head of NATO and ambassador to Taiwan -- said he had never thought of the club as "a gathering place for prominent or influential people."

In 1992, The Post's Sarah Booth Conroy took a rare tour of the mid-19th-century building, which in 1994 was put on the National Register of Historic Places. She described what sounded like a clubhouse for overgrown boys, encrusted with objects that might be considered tacky if they hadn't been donated by, say, a Supreme Court justice. The first-floor dining room resembles a 16th-century tavern, with dark wood paneling, heavy beams and a massive table set with pewter plates. One room is decorated with Japanese scrolls. Another has walls covered in portraits of members.

Of course it may all have been recently redecorated in Ikea modern, but Answer Man somehow doubts it.

Many questions remain: Are there any female members? Is President Obama a member? Is there a secret underground tunnel connecting the Alibi Club to the White House, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol? Can Answer Man join?

Unless things have changed, the club is only open on Fridays, except when a member books it for a private event. If you're not doing anything this Friday at lunchtime, hang around outside and see who goes in. It's the Washington version of L.A.'s Viper Room.

Have a question about the Washington area? Write answerman@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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