Ten years ago, there was just one place where you could dance till dawn: the Clubhouse. It was a Washington club where the party didn't really get cooking until 5 a.m. Where everyone -- black, white, straight, gay -- was invited.

In its heyday, the after-hours club packed 800 people in the door on the weekends. It was the place where all the deejays used to come after their clubs closed. It was the place where this three-piece, button-down town really let loose.

"In those days, it was a mixture of straight, bisexual, gay -- and people intrigued by the wild parties when all those people got together," said Aundrea Scott, one of the owners of the club. "It was very high tempo -- a kind of crowd that accepts everybody."

"It's black-owned, but it wasn't about being black. It wasn't about being gay," Scott said. "It was about belonging, having pride and feeling like you were somebody."

Last night, the Clubhouse closed its doors for the last time and closed a chapter in Washington nightlife.

"The Clubhouse is an institution," said Our Place restaurant owner Steve Miller. "It's the Joe and Mo's of black gay disco-land."

Miller said it was the first gay club he ever went to and unlike any other club in the city -- then or now. "Everyone went to the Clubhouse to dance and let their spirits run free -- and that's exactly what happened. It was the only one of its kind. The traditional discos frowned upon men dancing with men and women dancing with women. And still do."

Ellis Faith, Washington bureau chief of BG Magazine, a publication for black gays, agrees. "This is a community that is still very inhibited," he said. "Dancing has always been a form of black self-expression. It's a way of throwing off the shackles. It's a way of coming out."

The club opened in 1975 in a renovated warehouse on Upshur Street in Northwest Washington. It never advertised. It never had a liquor license. Entrance was by membership only. From the beginning, there were lines around the block. In the late '70s and early '80s, the club had almost 4,000 names on the membership list.

"An entire gospel choir called asking for membership," said Scott, who approved every new member. "People were so proud of the club they would tell all their friends about it. There was fire here."

"It's a place where I could be and really feel good amongst young black brothers who came out to have a good time and really liked to dance," said Gregori Eades, a regular at the club. "You felt like you were at your best friend's house at a good throw-down party."

Saturday night's "Children's Hour" party, the annual Memorial weekend celebration, was one last bash for the club's old-timers. More than 750 people danced the night away, finally shutting the club down at 8:45 Sunday morning.

"There was no booze here. Drugs didn't play a big factor. It was the energy you felt in this place," Eades said. "You came to have a good time. You felt safe. You felt you weren't going to get knocked in the head and all that. You could just enjoy yourself and then leave here exhausted."

Scott said that sense of security lasted until the mid-'80s, when information about AIDS first captured public attention. At that point, he said, "a lot of the straight kids stopped coming... . We lost the New York atmosphere." Scott estimated that by the club's 10th anniversary, 300 members had died from AIDS, and that perhaps twice that number have died to date. He now plans to work full-time as director of the Inner City AIDS Network, a counseling and education service.

Said Our Place owner Miller, "AIDS has changed how people socialize. There's a lot more establishments geared toward conversation and developing relationships."

Economics also played a part in the club's decline. The owners of the Clubhouse, financially depleted by an unsuccessful attempt at a public restaurant and bar, survived on a month-to-month basis and were unable to afford expensive renovations of their no-frills space. The club never charged for its memberships and cover charges barely paid the rent. Regulars said the club lost a younger generation who demanded a more sophisticated setting, such as the high-tech gloss of Tracks nightclub.

But for most of the crowd at Saturday's farewell party, decor was never the drawing card.

"You came here to see gorgeous people who had very good attitudes. The fact that a person is gay wasn't a negative. It was a positive. The club pushed positive vibes," said LaChard, another regular at the club.

"It's like a whole part of your history going away. People will miss it for the dancing but most for the socialization."