When the Man in Question "cannot be reached for comment," when husbands are "in a meeting," when the keepers of the conspiracy are conspiring, rumor is they are at the accurately named Alibi Club.

Last week, the 1860s building and its site on I Street NW was designated as a landmark on Washington's Inventory of Historic Sites by the unanimous vote of the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board. The board also recommended it be included in the National Register of Historic Places, said Glen Leiner, landmarks coordinator for the board.

The three-story dark brick building is one of the few remaining mid-19th-century row houses in that high-rise section of town. More than that, for the past 106 years its reputation has rested on its occupant, the Alibi Club, whose select membership has always included a cabal of leaders. Today, President Bush, his counsel C. Boyden Gray and William Webster, recently director of both the CIA and the FBI, are among the powerful known to be members.

The club's reclusive air is one of its chief charms. For years it had no telephone. All messages had to be sent by telegram or courier, to be received by well-trained attendants who would give properly evasive answers. Today there is a phone, in the hall, but the number is unlisted. Nearby is a sign: "Telephone Tips: 'Just Left,' 25 cents; 'On His Way,' 50 cents; 'Not Here,' $1; 'Who?' $5."

The Alibi Club was founded in 1884 by seven disaffected members of the Metropolitan Club (organized in 1863). "Together they sought relief from the vicissitudes of domestic life and the rigors of business ... in the pursuit of happiness in comfortable surroundings among convivial friends," reads the framed history in the hall. The club name was chosen in "defense against queries by curious men and women."

National Preservation Institute planner Carol S. Gould recently researched the architectural and social history of the club to write the application for landmark status. The front, the grander section of the building, was added around 1864 to an earlier carriage house and possibly slave quarters by a prosperous tailor, M. Bouvet. No doubt it was then considered an unremarkable row house, at one with the neighborhood.

Perversely, the house's anonymous look -- no sign hangs on the solid door -- attracts attention. It looks like all those houses in the movies where the head of espionage meets the defector.

"It's too fancy for a safe house -- they're very antiseptic," said Richard Helms, the former CIA chief and ambassador to Iran. "Very little plotting goes on at the Alibi Club."

The current club proctor, or presiding officer, James Symington, also insists there are no plots brewing behind the very solid door of 1806 I St. NW.

Even so, Symington admits that during World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall, the senior member of the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff and the chief Allied strategist, met secretly with world leaders at the Alibi Club.

Its high-voltage members claim they come to the club to get away from pomp and circumstances. The courtly Symington, a lawyer, poet, singer and former protocol chief and member of Congress, pointed to a sign over an inside door: "He who enters here leaves rank and precedence behind."

At any rate, it's not possible to deny the experience and influence of the lifetime members. They tend to be men of an age who no longer worry about what they're going to be when they grow up. The list has included at least four CIA directors, four Supreme Court justices, including Warren Burger and Lewis F. Powell, three former secretaries of state, three secretaries of war or defense and innumerable supreme military commanders, doctors, lawyers and department chiefs.

The club limits itself to 50 members -- certainly with good reason, for no more than that number could fit in the 1,400-square-foot house at one time.

Status or race are not criteria, although Symington said no women or blacks are members. Because of its small size, the club is not legally obligated to admit women, he said.

Many of the members' fathers preceded them in the club, including the late Sen. Prescott Bush, father of George, and Gordon Gray, Eisenhower's chief of staff and father of Boyden. Sen. James Wadsworth, Symington's grandfather, was a member. John Hay, his great-grandfather, the former secretary of state and Lincoln biographer, visited the club often.

"The membership changes slowly," Symington said. "It's always sad when we elect a new member, because it means an old one has died."

"It's a club of friends. Everybody knows everybody," said Adm. Jerauld Wright.

Wright stood in the front hall, a stately presence, to give the rare tour of the premises. A World War II hero famous for hair-raising rescue missions, Wright was later the commander of the Atlantic fleet. He has been a member since 1929 and the club's historian, archivist and cook. Covington and Burling attorney Daniel McNamara Gribbon, another longtime member, also served as guide. David Acheson, the club's second in command, called the Bulldog, couldn't make it. The club has other titles, including that of caterer -- "who serves until we can't stand the food anymore," says Symington. "Then the one who complains most gets the job."

On the evidence of the interior, the clubhouse is the treasure trove of 10-year-old boys. Wright soon demonstrated that at 94, he has total recall of the approximately 89 million objects strewn about: a cannonball fired by a British gun at the head of the Patuxent River on the property of member Philip Bonsal, the strap from a Saint Bernard said to have saved a member, a cowbell both rung and struck to announce a meal and its collaborator, a carriage horn.

Smithsonian secretary emeritus S. Dillon Ripley is said to have said upon joining the club: "It looks as though it's furnished with everything the Smithsonian ever rejected."

"It's all those things our wives wouldn't let us keep at home," said Gribbon. He said that they even had the head of a sheep and the skull of a tiger.

The framed Alibi history on the wall explains that the rooms are "packed with discarded furniture and loaded with priceless junk brought in by loving hands."

When Sandra Day O'Connor came to the Supreme Court she was not invited to join, though she's often a guest. To show she had no hard feelings, the associate justice donated the spittoon in her office, left over from Potter Stewart's tenure. It is a measure of the club's decor that they took it.

In the hallway are a cuneiform tablet praising the great god Auramazda, a Victorian hatrack holding Wright's Naval Academy uniform, a series of photographs of a grimacing comedian, and a door that is permanently sealed with a devil painted on it.

The second-floor card room was long the haven of a painting of amorous and drunken sailors on leave. "The Fleet's In," Symington explained, was executed in 1934 by Paul Cadmus, then a painter for the Public Works of Art project of the 1930s. The Corcoran Gallery hung the painting as a part of a show of PWA works and then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, mindful of the Navy's reputation, marched into the gallery, snatched it off the wall and took it to his house. When he died in 1936, he left it to the Alibi Club.

The government reclaimed the painting in 1980, and for a time, it was displayed by the Navy Historical Society. Recently it was included in a show of Cadmus's work in New York, but it is now in storage. In its place at the Alibi Club is the artist's etching of the scene, donated by Wright, and a color photomural of it.

The grill room on the first floor, formally known as the dining room, is perhaps one of the most remarkable clubrooms extant. It brings to mind a tavern of the 16th century: dark wood paneling, heavy beams, grill/fireplace, beer keg with tap, rows of blue and white plates and Toby jugs. Among its contents are a hand-driven mincemeat device, a duck press, shelves upon shelves festooned with an 18th-century Argentine silver platter, a set of silver terrapin dishes (donated by Wright from his tour as ambassador to Taiwan), an immense table surrounded by 30 Windsor chairs, and a clock with a dinner-plate face, knife and fork hands, soup-spoon pendulum and hours marked with oyster shells.

Members originally made a great fuss of cooking for themselves, a fancier version of Boy Scout campfire stew. The tradition is no longer well kept. "Never when we have guests," Symington said. Once a week -- don't ask when -- they gather around the table. Wright may be the club's most famous chef. Every so often he declares a member cook-up, and assigns dishes.

"I remember well when he made a fine finnan haddie," said Symington. "And I made the souffle. It fell."

A few years back, as Symington tells the tale, a new policeman on the block was curious about the number of men going into this small house. He gathered his forces and raided the building. "He only found people sitting around playing cards, for not more than $1 a go."

The card room was refinished in 1936 to hang a wonderful collection of drawings of Alibi members by turn-of-the-century artist Clary Ray. The drawings were left to the club by Larz Anderson, once the ambassador to Japan, whose grand house is now the showplace of the Society of the Cincinnati. Back then, the Navy's influence on the club could be seen in a mock SS Alibi gangway, beams and frames and hammock, now mercifully removed to make an entry to the kitchen.

Unlike the Cosmos Club, whose new female members have brought better food and new interior design, the Alibi Club has no plans to change. "One wife said we should dust the place more often," Symington said, "but she added that it might make the house fall down."