For years, the mounted heads of the beasts — including an elk shot by Ulysses S. Grant III, the president’s grandson — had stared down from the walls of the main lounge of the club, which is at 17th and I streets NW in Washington. No longer.
As a courtesy, the families that had donated the taxidermy trophies were asked if they wanted theirs back.
“No one did,” John La Raia, a club board member and retired Air Force officer, said as he showed me around this fall.
The heads were rounded up for their final migration: to an antiques dealer in Alexandria, Va.
The moose may be gone, but plenty of history remains at the club. Each member has his or her own story, of course. What they have in common is that they were officers in a branch of the U.S. military. (There’s also an associate membership category for those who didn’t serve.)
John said that when newcomers walk in the first time, they often say, “This is like the old Officers Club.”
Officers Clubs — or O Clubs — were once fixtures on military bases. They’re vanishing today, responding to changes in the military and in leisure time, but the Army and Navy Club maintains that air: familiar, comfortable — if by definition exclusive — and with a well-stocked bar.
The club was born at the tail-end of 1885, when seven officers who had served in the Mexican War and the Civil War met in an upstairs room at Klotz’s Hofbrauhaus, a restaurant at 17th and G NW. The organization they founded was initially called the United Service Club.
The name was changed in 1891, about the time the club moved to its own building on the southeast corner of 17th and I. In 1912, the club relocated to a bigger building across I Street, where it remains today.
That move was accomplished with much ceremony — officers love pomp and circumstance — and with something else besides: To slake the thirst of members processing from the old building to the new, the club’s wine steward stood in the middle of I Street dispensing daiquiris. The drink wasn’t invented at the Army and Navy Club — it hails from Cuba — but it was popularized there, and a room in the club is still called the Daiquiri Lounge.
Teddy Roosevelt was a member of the club. Franklin Roosevelt, too. So was practically every famous general, admiral or commandant you can think of. Mamie Eisenhower used to come by and play bridge, though as a guest. (Women couldn’t be full-fledged members until 1973. Today the club’s general manager is a woman: Sarah M. Ford.)
Like other clubs — Cosmos, Metropolitan — there are rooms for members visiting from out of town. The pandemic has changed things, of course. The much-loved buffet is shuttered. Tables in the dining room are spread apart. Takeout meals for members have turned out to be a surprising success.
The club’s 19,000-volume library holds books on military science, foreign policy, defense and espionage. There are memoirs, too, like “Crusade in Europe,” by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Librarian Will Andersen is partial to the self-published memoirs by soldiers not as famous as Ike.
“That’s the real soul of the library,” he said.
The library also holds a large wooden table that was used as a barricade by the Spanish during a battle in the Philippines in 1898. “[The] holes made by rifle fire have been plugged,” a plaque notes.
Jim Bracken is the club’s historian. He’s been a member for 40 years. Now 85, he joined the Marine Corps in 1957 and served in it for 26 years.
As I was preparing to leave, Jim said, “Let me just show you Farragut.”
Hanging in the lobby is a portrait of Adm. David Farragut, the namesake of the square just outside the door. Nearby is a case containing jewelry once owned by Virginia, his wife, along with a sword that belonged to his father, George Farragut, a naval officer in the Revolutionary War.
For some reason, looking at that sword reminded me that John had said Space Force officers are now eligible for membership in the Army and Navy Club. Perhaps someday a case in the lobby will hold a phaser.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.