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Private clubs in Washington, D.C.

Private clubs in Washington, D.C.
The entryway of the Georgetown Club in Washington.

Washington boasts two clubs on the 11 Most Exclusive Private Clubs in America list, created by Los Angeles-based consultancy Club Marketing. One of these, the University Club, about a half mile north of the White House at 930 Sixteenth St. NW, ranks fifth on the list. Its first president, William Howard Taft, would later become our nation’s 27th chief executive. It was Taft who gave the club its motto: “Enter all of ye who have a degree of good fellowship and learning.”

Established in 1904, the University Club’s first home was the Willard Hotel before moving to its current location. It was once a favored residence of lawmakers such Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat who, according to legend, enjoyed playing cards on the third-floor card room against the likes of Richard Nixon.

Sandwiched on the list between the third-ranked California Club of Los Angeles and New York’s top-ranked Union Club is Washington’s iconic Cosmos Club. Rooted in the sciences, the Cosmos Club was incorporated in 1878 by John Wesley Powell—explorer of the American West—along with chemists, zoologists, geologists and other notable founding members.

Incorporating Louis XV elements on a Beaux Arts-style façade, and walls of Indiana limestone, the Cosmos Club sits two blocks from Dupont Circle, where it has been housed since 1950.

The Cosmos Club’s main address with its Beaux Arts-style architecture.

Early in the 20th century, the Cosmos Club divided applicants into 11 groups including, writers, doctors, military officers, government officials and foreign diplomats. Its members have included three presidents, two vice presidents, 14 Supreme Court justices, 36 Nobel Prize winners, 61 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 55 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1997, the adjacent former French Military Mission, purchased by the club in 1985, was renovated to become the Hillyer House. Attached to the main building via a glass-enclosed walkway, it houses 19 of the Cosmos Club’s 50 ornate overnight rooms and suites.

The nation’s capital has a wide collection of private organizations catering to the city’s elite. Several of them openly court members of Washington’s diplomatic corps.

“Washington clubs like the Cosmos Club, University Club and Georgetown Club offer honorary membership to ambassadors,” said a retired South American chief of mission. “Many ambassadors accept these invitations to take advantage of networking opportunities and the various facilities offered by these clubs.”

Among them is The Army and Navy Club overlooking Farragut Square. Its rules state that “the privileges of membership may be extended to ambassadors and commissioned officers in the armed forces of foreign countries, so long as they are on duty in the United States.”

First known as the United Service Club, founded in 1885, the organization was open to any military officer who had served during wartime. Later, it extended its membership eligibility to all officers and ex-officers of the Army, Navy, and Marines, before changing its name to The Army and Navy Club in 1891. In keeping with its martial underpinnings, the club’s walls boast military-themed art and books. The club itself hosts various events ranging from a luncheon on the British defense industry to a private dinner featuring the president of Croatia.

Similarly, the Georgetown Club, at 1530 Wisconsin Avenue NW, offers free membership to foreign diplomats accredited to the White House, the United Nations or the Organization of American States.
Though Georgetown itself predates the District of Columbia by four decades, the club is a relative newcomer among exclusive clubs here. It was founded in 1966 to bring together leaders in politics, diplomacy, business and academia who have had an impact on the United States and the world.

About a decade ago, the Georgetown Club underwent a design change, hoping to regain its relevance within the surrounding neighborhood famed for its posh political cocktail parties.

“These clubs have excellent kitchens and first-class service,” said a retired diplomat. “Many embassies like to host visiting senior officials for meals in an elegant, discreet setting. Some ambassadors, mostly those with smaller embassies, use the clubs for receptions and other diplomatic events.”

The Metropolitan Club’s main headquarters.

The name William Howard Taft pops up again with Washington’s famed Metropolitan Club, located at 17th and H streets, two blocks from the White House. Its members have Robert Todd Lincoln, John Hay, Henry Morgenthau Jr., Walter Lippmann, Dean Acheson, Adm. George Dewey, Paul Mellon, Henry Cabot Lodge and Henry Kissinger. Ten of its members have been nominated for president; six of them, along with Taft, won the highest office in the land, including Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Metropolitan Club dates to 1863, when six officials of the US Treasury met to discuss the prospects of forming a literary and social club. The dues that first year were $50.

Perched atop the National Press Building—within sight of the White House and just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol—the National Press Club bills itself as “the meeting place in Washington for newsmakers and journalists.”

On March 12, 1908, 32 newspapermen with $300 in the treasury and pledges of support from 200 colleagues decided that such a club was feasible. They elected officers to explore the idea, and 17 days later, at the Willard Hotel, framed the beginnings of the National Press Club.

For 116 years, the NPC has been a regular destination for Washington’s diplomatic community as its esteemed spaces have hosted countless embassy and foreign media events, including a yearly Embassy Night event that draws ambassadors from around the globe.

“These clubs seem to enjoy the prestige associated with having ambassadors as members and guests,” said the former South American chief of mission. “It’s a win-win relationship for both.”

This article first appeared in the printed version of the 2024 Embassy Directory, which includes biographies of all foreign ambassadors serving in Washington, D.C. To get your hard copy or digital subscription, please click here.

John Rosenberg