A map in yesterday's Metro section incorrectly located the Sycamore Island Club. The club is on a Potomac River island in Montgomery County near Glen Echo, inside the Capital Beltway. (Published 10/24/95)
Washington has ancient clubs with more storied pedigrees -- Cosmos, for instance -- and newer ones best known for their exclusivity, such as male-only Burning Tree. But the club with the best real estate and the peerless views is Sycamore Island, where the ever-changing Potomac River rolls past the clubhouse door.
The Sycamore Island Club is 155 families bound by their love for a river the first Washingtonians called Patawomeck. They canoe and kayak and row and swim and fish and bird-watch, and when they tire of that, members can picnic on their two-acre island paradise or shoot pool on the 60-year-old billiard table with fraying pockets.
The club is tucked into a corner of Montgomery County near Glen Echo, inside the Capital Beltway, no less. No wonder the club's waiting list stretches about a dozen years.
There's nothing fancy about the place, just a lodge on stilts furnished with secondhand stuff, an outdoor shower, a workshop and a sheltered rack for 72 canoes, surrounded by a grove of majestic sycamores. The most exotic thing around is the rope-drawn ferry that skims back and forth across the 50-yard channel between the Maryland shore and Sycamore Island.
"There was a time when we were quite actively involved with whitewater races and regattas," said John S. Thomson, 74, a senior member, "but we've become more of a family-oriented, backwater kind of club."
The members want it that way, according to a survey ordered by the incoming president, Warren Brown. Brown, an official at the National Park Service, asked members what they wanted to change about the club. "Nothing" was the leading answer.
Very little does change. A trophy bass, mouth agape and topside dusty, still hangs near the front door of the clubhouse. The tarnished silver trophy cups from 1929 and 1932 still have their rightful place nearby.
Members may not say so explicitly, but they love Sycamore Island in part because it harks back to a genteel era in Washington, when gentlemen played tennis on the island's now-gone clay court and wooed the ladies at weekend dances in the grander clubhouse that was washed away in the great Potomac flood of 1936.
"It was beautiful in my day," said Robert H. Custis, 66, whose father was once club president. "It was definitely more upscale, more fancy people in a way.
"They kind of wanted to keep the place a secret," Custis said. "They didn't want everybody and their brother coming out."
There still is some of that feeling at the club, where members wax rhapsodic about the beautiful natural resource they enjoy up the road at Cabin John.
"I grew up on a bayou, and this was the closest thing to it," said Laureen Nicholson, whose children practically grew up on Sycamore Island.
Bill Eichbaum, a former top environmental official in Maryland state government, said: "The larger story is the river here. It's so unspoiled. So few people appreciate the resource. We're a little piece of something larger."
The club was organized in April 1885, and then, as now, members were solidly middle class, a mix of U.S. government workers and professionals.
In recent decades, the club attracted fairly senior people at such agencies as the State Department, the National Security Agency and the CIA.
For years, in all kinds of weather, Thomson and several of his buddies used to commute by canoe across the river to CIA headquarters at Langley. The trip took five minutes.
Family membership on Sycamore Island costs $240 a year; 120 families are on the waiting list, and about 10 enter the club each year.
Basically, the dues buy access: Ring the cowbell at the ferry, and caretaker and year-round island resident Peter Jones (his dad was in Thomson's canoe pool) cheerfully will bring visitors ashore. Booze and dogs are banned; egrets, beavers and an annoying duck have the run of the place.
Expect no luxury, though. Tug open the door of locker 67 in the men's room, for instance, and see the mud from the terrible 1972 flood, big furry spiders, a discarded fishing fly and an old jar of Safeway instant coffee.
"Stuffy is not the word that I think people would use around here," said Brown, the president. "It's a low-key and somewhat disorganized atmosphere. Some people think sweeping out the locker room floor is a step toward country clubification, and that's a step they don't want to take."
In the end, Sycamore Island has become what it probably always was, a place more or less frozen in time, where grown-up children get to take their own children today. After some heated exchanges in the club newsletter, members are poised to approve a conservation easement that could sharply restrict development on Sycamore Island. Some of the rugged individualists in the group objected to any outsiders -- in this case, the Potomac Conservancy -- dictating what the club could do on Sycamore Island.
For that is the enduring tradition of Sycamore Island: Leave well enough alone. The other night, as twilight filtered through the golden sycamores, longtime members John and Joan Heidemann enjoyed a picnic supper near the water's edge.
In the gathering darkness, their adult daughter, Kris, spoke lovingly about her childhood summers on Sycamore Island.
When a visitor asked her what she liked most about the island, she did not hesitate at all: "It hasn't changed all that much." CAPTION: Daniel Gillon, 7, and 5-year-old Jonathan, his brother, run toward the clubhouse at the Sycamore Island Club in Montgomery County. CAPTION: The Gillons bring guests over on the rope-drawn ferry that skims across the 50-yard channel between the shore and the island. Families come to boat, swim and fish.