Want to spend Wednesday night playing your great-grandmother’s favorite board games and drinking beer in a former president’s mansion?
Yeah, that idea sounds dorky to me, too, and I have a healthy interest in both history and brews. But the fun of the monthly Vintage Game Night at the stately Woodrow Wilson House can transcend the overt nerdiness of the theme. Where else in town can you spend a few hours in a secluded garden lawn-bowling or playing croquet and card games while sipping beers from Starr Hill, snacking on pretzels, popcorn and animal crackers, and learning more about our 28th president? (Told you it was nerdy.)
The potential unhipness of hanging out at Wilson’s house didn’t seem to matter to the people in the terraced garden on a sunny Wednesday earlier this month, swatting croquet balls among lilies and low stone walls. Teona Williams and Mary Phillips were first-time visitors, and had fallen for the house.
“It feels like a secret place,” Williams said. “So few people in D.C. have access to a back yard, so it’s wonderful to have something like this.”
Their friend Ben Lownik admitted that none of them really knew how to play croquet, but that didn’t matter as much as spending time outside. “This is awesome,” he said. “When we walked in, we said, ‘We’re going to do this every month.’ ”
Launched in February, the monthly Vintage Game Night is a way for the Kalorama house museum to reach out to a younger audience that maybe wouldn’t think about visiting the home that Wilson lived in from 1921, when he left office, until his death in 1924.
Scattered throughout the dining room and the drawing room are games from the 1920s through the ’40s. Some are original editions, such as the 1931 strategy game Camelot and the 1926 automobile-themed card game Touring. Others are modern reproductions of popular games, including mah-jongg — a favorite of the president’s wife, Edith — and a Candyland-style game starring the cartoon rabbit Uncle Wiggly. Guests can snack or sip beers from local breweries, wine or soda while they play.
It’s an unusual way to pass an evening with history-loving friends, but Vintage Game Night really stepped up this month when it expanded outdoors. Now you can play lawn games in the split-level garden, which has been restored to its 1920s appearance, and more board games at tables on the flagstone terrace behind the house.
Special events manager Sarah Andrews says the alfresco event is historically accurate: The museum’s collection includes the Wilsons’ lawn-bowling set, which contains hand-written scorecards. (It is not used by guests.) “Croquet was very popular when the Wilsons were growing up, and was still being played in the ’20s and ’30s,” Andrews said, noting that Wilson probably never played croquet in the garden because a 1919 stroke left him partially paralyzed on his left side. “He was more of a board game enthusiast,” she said.
Several rooms in the house and a gallery space are open for the public to explore. Curators are on hand to talk about the items in the drawing room, which include a mosaic of St. Peter that Wilson received from the pope in 1919, or to show off some prized pieces in Wilson’s library. Fact sheets give the story of each game as well as its rules.
Reservations for the night are recommended, but not required. My sense is that it’s better to come as a group than to arrive solo: Once people have started playing board and card games, there aren’t many opportunities for newcomers to jump in, so you need to wait until a game finishes. But for happy hour on a lovely summer day, and the chance to say, “I played croquet in a president’s garden,” this is a very interesting only-in-D.C. option.
Woodrow Wilson House, 2340 S. St. NW.
202-387-4062. www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org .
When: The first Wednesday of the month, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. The next one is Wednesday.
Price: $15, includes light snacks and two beverages. Additional drinks are $5 apiece.