In another seeming triumph of business over tradition, the Federal City Club has been exiled to the streets.
After almost three years of negotiations over the club's future, its landlord, the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, has given the venerable luncheon club until June 8 to vacate its quarters at the corner of 16th and K Sts.
In its place, apparently, the Sheraton Corp. of America -- owned by ITT -- will install a group of trade association representatives.
It is, to some of the Federal City Club's members, as though they are shutting down the last mess hall of Camelot, for the club is one of the more enduring legacies of those best and brightest Kennedy years.
The club, frankly, now has no place to go and while president Charles Bartlett, the columnist, said yesterday that "options are being explored," his tone was pessimistic.
Word of this denouement came last week in a letter sent by Bartlett to the club's 570 resident members (another 300 non-residents also hold eating rights).
Bartlett's letter said that Sheraton has shown "an undisguised anxiety to make room for a National Executivehs Club, a group of trade association representatives who will, Sheraton hopes, bring convention business to the chain."
A startling development: For weeks, the compnay and Bartlett were saying as little as possible to reporters, leaving the impression that if only left alone, they could work things out. And in a city of accommodation and last-minute compromise, that was plausible.
In Washington's pecking order, the club membership -- heavily credentialed for its suasive powers and tenacity -- ranks high. And its landlord's reputation for arranging arrangements is, of course, well-known.
But arrangements were not to be made and, as Bartlett's communique to members noted, the last 30 months of "persistent wrangling" had fatigued both the club and Sheraton management.
Those were trying months, which made men think unthinkable thoughts in their frustration. "If Dita Beard were still over at ITT this never would have happened," said a lobbyist member at the club one recent noonday.
That might or might not have been a prevailing view, but it was a delicious fragment of the modd among the club's Kennedy-Johnson types -- sometimes described as among the city's most intelligent.
Dita Beard used to be ITT's chief lobbyist -- its Washington connection -- and it was she who blew the whistle on the Nixon administration's protection of her compnay from antitrust action.
But life goes on and Beard is here no more. Although ITT owns the hotel chain and some of its officials are club members, it left the negotiating to Sheraton vice president Richard Barger.
Barger proved unyielding and the club's appeals to higher authority were fruitless. "The relationship has indeed become difficult," Bartlett told members, "and this perhaps is why the chief executive officer of the Sheraton chain, Howard P. James, has refused to meet with us or answer our communications."
Barger's axe fell last Wednesday. He decreed an end to negotiations and gave the club its June 8 notice. He could not be reached yesterday, but his notice apparently precluded a substantial grace period for club relocation. Cruel twist of the fates.
The Federal City Club was born in 1964 out of a new spirit, casting off the traditional men's-club racial bans and providing a place where whites and blacks could break bread.
Its genesis had been the resignation of Robert F. Kennedy and Bartlett -- who was renowned for introducing John F. Kennedy to Jackie -- from the Metropolitan Club in 1961 because of its racial bars.
Bartlett, black columnist Carl T. Rowan, Robert McNamara and C. Douglas Dillon, among others, joined together in 1964 to found the club.
It was ensconced in a first-floor corner of the Sheraton-Carlton and the place was soon purring with fraternalism. In those days, members were generally anti-establishment, or at least anti-tradition, and proud of it.
Nonetheless, the club served as the locus of numerous establishment soirees, charity balls and book publication parties, over the years; and lingered long before relinquishing its all-male composition.
The pressure to admit women began only a few weeks after the club was founded. Wives of the members, at first restricted to the clubrooms only after 5 p.m., started asking for space at lunch once a week. But it took eight years before the club admitted its first woman member: Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
The members were lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, professional bureaucrats, legislators, communicators. They honored each other, or leaders they admired, for "distinguished service," which probably was the first break with the untraditional air of the place.
The first award went to journalist Walter Lippman in 1967. Other award winners included McNamara (1968), Henry Kissinger (1973), Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus (1974), who had been massacred, as the phrase went, on a Saturday night of Watergate.
But lunch has always been the club's principal attraction -- a place to meet friends, talk business, conduct interviews -- and the Federal City Club, with its central downtown location, produced more than $5 million in rents and revenues for the hotel since 1964.
All this despite widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the lunch:
"Since the quality of the food was only moderate at any point, there was little room for slippage," Bartlett said in his letter, which complained that the club's tenancy at the hotel had "deteriorated into a constant, disagreeable struggle to maintain the level of food and service to which the members have been accustomed."
Rowan, one of the 50 founding members, stopped dropping by the club after he moved his offices to the Dupont Circle area.
"I haven't gone there for some months," Rown said recently. "They tell me it's better now, but you know, the food was so lousy, I just wouldn't take my guests there."
But even the food wasn't the major issue, according to Bartlett. It was the "charm" of the place that counted, as he said in his letter -- although he acknowledged that a move might result in a "much improved" menu.
Bartlett's letter leaves the future of the Federal City Club in the air. The best solution, he said, would be for the club to own its own site. But real estate costs, the difficulty of running a one-meal-a-day-establishment and the need to move soon "make it unlikely that we will be able to buy the space we need."
Are they playing Taps at the Federal City Club? "I would hope not, I would hope not." CAPTION:
Illustration by Susan Davis for The Washington Post