THE Congressional Club no longer gives pink teas, nor do its members travel in carriages or chauffered limousines to leave calling cards on each other's At Home Days. Even so, the club keeps up its almost three-quarters-of-a-century tradition as a social center for the wives, former wives, widows, daughters and daughters-in-law of members and former members of Congress.
The club is not to be confused with the conservative fund-raising group for congressional candidates that calls itself the Congressional Club. Nor, of course, should it be mistaken for the Congressional Country Club, though the odd person does arrive from time to time expecting tennis.
The club's home is the Beaux Arts club building, sitting like a plump but elegant grande dame at 2001 New Hampshire Ave. NW, a step off 16th Street. It wears its Palladian window like a lace fascinator. The dome on the round stair tower is rather like a '20s cloche hat. The building's importance clothes it like a mink cape.
The club's big event of the year is its First Ladies Luncheon, to be held this week. Nancy Reagan has aroused a great interest in the event -- "a new first lady always brings the members out," said president Norma (Mrs. Robert) Lagomarsino. Some 1,300 members of the Congressional Club from all over the country will gather for the event at a hotel here. Neither the date nor the place are being publicly announced in line with new security for the president and his family. Later in the year, members of the club have planned a smaller event for Mrs. Reagan's favorite volunteer organization, the Foster Grandparents, in the hopes she will come to the club itself.
Also this week, Mrs. Reagan's good friend, Nancy Reynolds, and her mother, Mrs. Virgil Clark (widow of the Idaho senator), will give a tea at the Congressional Club. And another day, club members will come to the club to see a Nancy Reagan doll, all dressed up in a copy of Mrs. Reagan's inaugural gown.
The club has just finished a $125,000 repair-and-redecoration program under the leadership of last year's president Bea (Mrs. Neal) Smith, and the supervision of architect Howard Trevillian. The balcony's original terra cotta balustrades have been replaced by a low solid stone parapet hand carved by Dennis Rude Stone Works. Fresh paint and curtains have spruced up the inside with the help of Kay George of W&J Sloane.
The club is used by its members not only for luncheons and classes (on everything from flower arranging to home repair) but also as a place for private wedding receptions and other galas.
For a number of years, the club's members hadn't been sure they wanted to stay in the dowager building. They even went so far as to ask for Normanstone Park in Northwest Washington as a site for a new building. These were the years when the decay of the area east of 16th Street made some members uneasy -- especially when they were no longer allowed to double park in front of the club.
But the club now has programs to help the neighborhood. The current restoration efforts and the interest in 16th Street as a historic district have helped change members' minds about moving.
During much of the 19th century, the wives of congressmen were just beginning to come to live in Washington during the sessions. In the early days of the city, there were few apartment buildings and no hotels. Most congressmen stayed in boarding houses, often bawdy, never a place for a gentlewoman. Wives and families were thought safer at home.
At the turn of the century, Washington looked a bit better. Rich folk from across the country began to build handsome mansions around Dupont Circle. Mary Henderson started her embassy row of extravagant edifices up and down 16th Street. The social life was in the pink.
Even so, for the wife of the new member of Congress, with only a two-year term, Washington must have seemed frightening. The social life was much more formal than in small towns. The entertaining was done in huge mansions, far more grandiose than a young congressman could afford. The husbands were away great hunks of time and not much help on social amenities.
In 1908, Rep. Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, tired of listening to his wife complain about being lonesome, said something like, "Why don't the congressional wives organize a club?" Mrs. James Breck Perkins gave a luncheon for 25 women. They agreed it would be nice to be able to meet other congressional families without having to make formal social calls. Everybody thought it was the greatest idea since the congressional franking privilege. Some 129 women signed up right away. Rep. Julius Kahn of California, husband of the club's new vice president, agreed to introduce a bill to incorporate the club.
But Rep. John Sharp Williams of Missouri, the House majority leader, held the view that women's clubs were a confounded nuisance to husbands and would make dinner late. When it came time to vote on the bill, Williams started a filibuster on immigration. The Congress was to adjourn the next day.
But women of those years were not too pround to be devious. Mrs. Williams got herself all done up in her widest brim feathered hat, sashayed into the wives' gallery, and sent down a note to her husband on the floor. The note said something like, "You do remember you were to take me to lunch today." That was the first he'd heard of it, but he couldn't turn her down. And while she looked at him with violet eyes in the House dining room, the measure passed, and the club became the only women's group to be chartered by Congress.
The club is nonpartisan, nonprofit, and self-supporting[TEXT OMITTED] he club first rented the house of a former senator at 1432 K St. The housewarming was a brilliant reception for President-elect and Mrs. Howard Taft. In 1913, a fter Woodrow Wilson was elected, a member of the club, Mary Henderson, gave the club its present building site.
Mary Henderson worked for years to make 16th Street into the Avenue of the Presidents. She built speculative mansions, great fantastic structures with turrets and cupolas, up and down the street. Some she sold to financiers, but her favorite clients were the embassies. She once tried to sell a house to be the vice president's residence, and later tried to give it to the government. She had a grandiose idea of building a new White House, straddling Meridian Hill, near her own home, Henderson's Castle.
Her favorite architect was George Oakley Totten, a Beaux Arts designer who worked in many styles, but all of them opulent. She made Totten available to the club and helped finance the new building, as well as donating paintings and art objects after it was finished.
The club's most durable tradition, the breakfast (now lunch) for the first lady, began in 1912, only to be changed to a "rather spartan Barracks breakfast," after the war began.
In 1916, the club purchased the adjacent lot by each member buying one square foot of the ground.
Hardly had the club been finished than the United States went into World War I. Club members, while not making and shipping hospital supplies, trained as a drill regiment to march in parades.
In the years following, the club bought a dram of radium and donated it to Marie Curie for the French scientists radiation experiments. Some members campaigned for Prohibition, others for women's suffrage. Stories are still told about bottles hidden on the balcony for quick nips at the dry receptions.Today the club serves sherry and wine, but nothing stronger.
In the flush of the early Herbert Hoover prosperity, the club held many fund-raising events, including its first edition of the Congressional Cook Book. Its 10th edition will be published next year. The money raised paid for the 1940 addition to the club building. The new space is now the doll room and the ladies lounges and office.
The doll room holds miniatures of all the first ladies' inaugural gowns, a gift of Evyan Perfume Inc. Some fuss went on with Evyan during the Ford administration, because the company made the point that Mrs. Ford didn't have an inaugural gown because there was no inauguration. But the ladies weren't about to slight Mrs. Ford, one of five members of the club who have gone on to be first ladies. And her doll is there today.
The club has another doll room. The International Doll Room holds dolls from more than 64 countries, as well as American Indian, Eskimo, Hawaiian, black, creole, cowgirl, Amish, and so on.
Other rooms have as varied a collection. Even the ladies lounge has a framed lace collar set given by the French. The archives room, like the entry and hallway, has many furnishings given by Mrs. Russell Mack of Washington state. The French provincial cabinet holds miniatures of 18th-century furniture, a 1911 ivory gavel, bookends made from marble taken from the White House during the Harry Truman rebuilding. The two pearwood chairs come from the estate of painter George Inness.
The reception room has pictures of the first ladies. The Hawaiian room's shells, plants, pineapple finials, and comfortable furnishings were a gift to the club from Elizabeth Farrington, the former congresswoman from Hawaii.
The house's most notable architectural feature is the stairway to the upstairs ballroom. The wide stair with its mahogany handrail swoops up to the landing with the Great Seal of the United States flanked by the seals of the Senate and the House as well as state flags.
The staircase divides on the landing to make a double stair to the ballroom.
The other day, on a tour with club president Norma Lagomarsino and last year's president Bea Smith, we climbed the great staircase and went into the ballroom. In niches are the large porcelain American eages given by Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Boehm.
The big ballroom has an early Steinway concert grand, a fireplace, and best of all, a remarkable Art Nouveau silver urn given by the Commercial Press of Shanghai to a congressional delegation.
Two more dining rooms serve the ladies. Club members often rent them for teas or engagement parties or wedding receptions. In the large dining room, the Philippine narra hardwood table and corner cabinets were given by Gen. and Mrs. Carlos Romulo. He was then the Philippine delegate to Congress.
Mary Henderson gave the Early Severes porcelain vases. The antique Waterford Baccarat chandelier with ormolu arms and six cherubs was the gift of Mrs. Mack, who seemed especially to the like giving lighting fixtures. The antique silver and crystal epergne, a sight in itself, was given by Mrs. Omar Burleson of Texas.
The alcove dining room has another Phillipine hand-carved table, this one the gift of Mrs. F. A. Delgado of the Philippines. The mirror frame, an ornate marvel, is another Mary Henderson gift. The Paul Revere bowl was used by Mrs. Truman to burn the club mortgage at its 40th anniversary. Another antique gold frame mirror was given by Abigail McCarthy, the writer. Ah yes, the chandelier came from Mrs. Mack.
In the old days, according to Smith, the ritual at Friday tea parties in the dining rooms was followed carefully. "We had to have a Republican and Democrat pouring at each table. And because coffee was counted as more of an honor to pour than tea, coffee and tea pourers would alternate from table to table."
Even today, club presidents are alternately Republican and Democrat. As good luck -- and perhaps good politics -- has it, this year's president's husband is a Republican from Santa Barbara, the Reagan's old district. The Lagomarsinos already have had a ride home on Air Force One, and a chance to welcome Nancy Reagan as a member of the club.