BETHESDA, Md. – It’s a cold, damp Friday night in April, and the golf course – all 36 holes – is still struggling to emerge from winter’s chill. But inside Congressional Country Club, the joint is jumping.
There’s a rock band blaring 1960s tunes at a wedding in the main ballroom. Over in the Chop House, guests and members in proper attire (jackets and ties for men, dresses or skirts for women) hover over their candle-lit meals in hushed reverence. And downstairs in the Founders Pub, about 400 folks clad in TGIF garb (jeans and sneakers de rigueur) are making a racket while watching the Washington Capitals’ playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on oversized LCD screens.
In the hallway leading to the bar, party animals of another sort – four Republicans and a Democrat – preside. Photos of Congressional’s first five honorary presidents – Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover – remind a visitor of how close this club always has been to the nexus of American power.
Industry titans abound, too, with images of black-tie gatherings and members Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, William Randolph Hearst and John D. Rockefeller toasting one another’s good fortune.
In the 1920s, U.S. presidents could have held Cabinet meetings here and nearly everyone would have been a club member.
During World War II, the club’s 283 acres were requisitioned by William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan
as a training base and munitions range for the Office of Strategic Services, a clandestine organization that he founded and was a direct forerunner of the CIA.
These days, the club assumes a more subdued profile, evidenced by the fact that only two sitting members of Congress are among its 3,000 members.
Congressional’s Spanish Revival clubhouse is massive. At 140,000 square feet after a recent addition, it now is the country’s largest golf clubhouse, surpassing even the legendary 110,000-square-foot clubhouse at Olympia Fields outside Chicago.
The Congressional clubhouse design by Phillip M. Julien evokes the Mediterranean tradition of Addison Mizner, whose barrel-tile roofs and stucco exteriors transformed the South Florida landscape in the 1920s.
The place gets a lot of use these days. That’s why they have 1,100 men’s lockers. The club also has three swimming pools, a bowling alley, a 10,000-square-foot indoor fitness center, 20 rooms for overnight guests and a sprawling penthouse suite where Ken Venturi, who won the 1964 Open at Congressional, will camp out for the week of the 2011 Open.